Sunday, February 11, 2018

Julie Beck's piece on the whole genre of emo and its dangerous myths about romance reminded me why I hated emo twenty years ago

When some people I knew in college told me about the emergence of an idiom called "emo" I was ... politely skeptical.  It seemed like what you'd get if James Taylor suddenly arrived at an epiphany in the middle of a standard issue ballad that there was this invention called the distortion pedal, kicked it on ceremoniously, and with a flourish decided to complete the rest of his otherwise croony ballad with some plaintive screaming.

Now love songs in general have a long and dubious tradition of a capacity for extolling the power of erotic attachment in alternately the most narcissistic and toxically codependent ways possible.  Emo, as best I could tell, was merely distilling all the stuff I'd already grown weary of.  Now it's not that I'm against love songs, and I'm not even against love songs strewn so readily with cliché as to beg all attention be turned to the music and not the embarrassingly trite lyrics.  I mean, if I were altogether against that I could own any albums by Stevie Wonder ... and even someone like Nabakov could still write love letters permeated with the most ancient clichés in the expressions of love.  

So for me it didn't seem like there were any revelations about how skeevy emo as a whole genre seemed to be in Julie Beck's piece on pop culture selling dangerous myths about romance that I hadn't spotted within the first two minutes of hearing my first emo song (which soon became the last one I voluntarily listened to in order to humor the advocacy of a person telling me about the genre back when I was incollege).

But every generation, to be fair, must discover things in their own time and place and in their own way.  Thus ...

Edward Cullen. Chuck Bass. Lloyd Dobler. Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That guy from Love Actually with the sign. The lead singers of emo bands with their brooding lyrics. Many of the romantic heroes that made me swoon in my youth followed a pattern and, like a Magic Eye picture, only with a little distance did the shape of it pop out to me. All of these characters in some way crossed, or at least blurred, the lines of consent, aggressively pursuing women with little or no regard for their desires. But these characters’ actions, and those of countless other leading men across the pop-culture landscape, were more likely to be portrayed as charming than scary.

Romance often involves a bit of pursuit—someone has to make a move, after all. And there’s certainly a spectrum of pursuit: Sometimes supposedly romantic gestures in pop culture veer toward the horrendous or illegal; sometimes they’re just a bit creepy or overzealous. But revisiting some of these fictional love stories can leave one with the understanding that intrusive attention is proof of men’s passion, and something women should welcome. In a number of cases, male characters who were acknowledged to have gone too far—by, for example, actually forcing themselves on women—were quickly forgiven, or their actions compartmentalized and forgotten.

I grew up watching movies in which women found it flattering when their pursuers showed up uninvited to hold a boombox under their window, or broke into their bedrooms to watch them sleep, or confessed their feelings via posterboard while their love interest’s husband sat in the next room. So I found it flattering, too. I sang along with The Killers’ “Change Your Mind” (“If the answer is no, can I change your mind?”) and Fall Out Boy’s “7 Minutes in Heaven” (“I keep telling myself I’m not the desperate type, but you’ve got me looking in through blinds”) without a second thought about what the lyrics implied.

Allegations of sexual harassment have been pouring out of the entertainment industry, among others, in recent months. But while predatory male behavior has been condoned and covered up behind the scenes, it’s also been glorified on screen and on the page and on the radio. As my colleague Lenika Cruz put it to me: “Rape culture, actually, is all around.” The narratives of a culture help to set its norms. Research has already found that romantic comedies can normalize stalking behavior. It’s not difficult, then, to imagine that toxic love stories can also normalize coercion. That they can make people—women, especially—question when and whether their boundaries have really been violated, when they should be flattered and when they should be afraid.

When I read this article a week or so ago I remember thinking of Mike Nelson of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and his big book of cheese, full of essays in which one essay addressed head on the paradox of Meg Ryan as an "it" actress of the 1990s.  Why was it that a Meg Ryan character could do X, Y and Z in a film like Sleepless in Seattle and it could be cute when if Harry Connick Jr. did exactly the same things in some other film it was a horror/thriller story and we were supposed to view the male character as the evil ,aggressive and duplicitous stalker?  Why couldn't we regard both the Harry Connick Jr. character and the Meg Ryan character(s) as outright evil?  Nelson was wondering why the Meg Ryan character got a pass for doing things that, if done in the real world, would be both creepy stalking and just plain criminal.

Beck moves along to discuss one of the problems that some viewers and reviews had with Blade Runner 2049, full spoiler alert


For example, in the 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner, the protagonist Rick Deckard at one point forces himself on an android named Rachael. But the moment is portrayed as romantic—it’s even soundtracked with a sexy ’80s saxophone. Casey Cipriani at Slate writes of the film’s 2017 sequel, Blade Runner 2049, that “a big part of the new Blade Runner’s plot relies on the belief that Deckard and Rachael fell in love in the first, [but] their ‘love’ is the result of a coercive sex scene.” Similarly, in the first season of Game of Thrones, the relationship between Daenerys Targaryen and Khal Drogo—which is portrayed as a great love, one through which Daenerys eventually comes into her own as a ruler—begins with a wedding night on which the teenage girl cries and tries unsuccessfully to keep Drogo from undressing her. (This is a departure from the book’s depiction of that scene.)

Now the first thing that should be gotten out of the way is that I don't think there's any plausible case to be made that Rick Deckard is anything but a man, i.e. human, not a replicant.  One of the challenges of the plot of 2049 is that we have to believe at some level that Deckard and Rachel became a "legitimate" pair in the sense of mutual admiration and attachment.  But anyone who saw the original film would see how obviously Deckard forced himself on Rachel.  There's room to propose that as scripted or originally written a seduction was involved but, since a friend of mine mentioned that Ridley Scott felt that that version of the scene was somehow not working it was changed.

Now ... that tends to reinforce my belief that Ridley Scott is a complete hack who needs to be kept as far away from story elements and character arcs as possible.  This could also be an opportunity to thematically riff off into how the auteurs and cinematic men of the 1970s are increasingly revealed to have been pretty terrible people.  The relatively lazy bromide of blaming everything wrong in the United States with the legacy of Puritanism isn't really possible to cast so broadly as to have it apply to a Roman Polanski or a Woody Allen, and Ridley Scott can't even be thought of as an American filmmaker, though British chauvinism and treatment of women could, obviously, be its own side topic.  In sum, the cinematic trope of the "one true pairing" is imposed on us by the narrative of Blade Runner 2049 and not everybody has to buy that that's the case based on what happened in Blade Runner itself.  It could be sort of like, I don't know, The Comedian and Silk Spectre I, though.

But the larger element of 2049 that I liked was that we're not only never told whether or not Deckard is or isn't a replicant (the single least interesting question anyone could pose about the character or the films), we are never told that the baby Rachel reportedly gave birth to ever survived.  Tyrell seemed pretty clear in the original film that replicants couldn't effectively live longer than four years without something being seriously wrong with them.  That opened up a possibility that a replicant could live longer than a mere four years but never introduced a probability or a likelihood that a replicant's life would be longer. So why would so many replicants hope that a child of a replicant would be a messianic leader if this would fly in the face of any evidence?  Replicants didn't start living longer, and the fact that Deckard is played by old Ford in the new film would suggest plaily he's not a replicant.  Relpicants were built to be the scut workers and slave labor of the human populace. There was no need to design them to age and weaken the way their human creators would.  What's the incentive to make a replicant that is more advanced only to have that replicant be capable of doing something as stupid as the contemporary equivalent o fstarting a twitter feed to share knock knock jokes? 

But the idea of a replicant savior could be a means of social control.  Think of it this way, if the replicants that become sentient and autonomous enough to want to rebel against the human populace were given memories or common knowledge of a possible savior they could spend all their time waiting for that person to appear when he/she wouldn't, first of all, and, more importantly, moving underground to await the never-will-arrive replicant savior could be a failsafe protocol to ensure that the replicants who would otherwise have to be violently retired would in social/functional terms retire themselves by moving underground. 

Now if Stelline "were" a replicant/human child she can't leave her bubble of safety for health reasons, the last person who would be in a position to really foment a replicant revolution against a Wallace overlord.  One of the characters intones in the most serious manner that dying for a cause you believe in is the most human thing you can do ... but the film never deigns to answer the question of whether it's ever been necessary for a self-sacrificing human to die for a cause that is actually true.

While Beck's article went on to describe some things about rape culture she stopped well short of suggesting that, in sum, pop culture is the most potent mediator of the ethos of rape culture.  It's in the pop songs, it's in the movies, it's in the films and the paradox, or perhaps we should say irony, is that this was all coming from the Hollywood that might default to talking about how bad the legacy of the Puritans was (it was bad in several respects, to put it matter of factly but, again, it'd be hard to pin any blame on the Puritans for Woody Allen, who we'll get to in another post). 

As the post-Weinstein moment has been playing through it looks as though many a man who might have been thought of as being an advocate for women within the media industries can turn out to be a man who has found it useful to use women.  At another level, whatever Nora Ephron was fighting for in the flesh and blood realm of our world, she was okay with scripts in the vein of When Harry Met Sally.  You might be able to suggest that the path from Silkwood to When Harry Met Sally and You've Got Mail was a path into pandering mediocrity as distinct from overt message-movie-scripting.

There was a lot about pop music in the 1990s I really hated.  It was a special era in which grunge emerged, and grunge seemed to be what you'd get if you grabbed punk that had been sitting on the kitchen countertop for a day, ,put it in the microwave, and then pulled it out and served it as a meal.  You could eat it and not die or get food poisoning, but was this what was available?  Not that I'm even necessarily all that much a fan of punk.  I find the idea promulgated by at least some music journalists and writers that punk was somehow the "last" avant garde movement patently ridiculous.
It wasn't even the last avant garde movement of music within the United Kingdom.  The New Complexity movement (not that I'm going out of my way to endorse Brian Ferneyhough) can be thought of as a movement that pervaded the last half century but emerged as an identifiable movement within approximately the same period as punk.  Avant garde trends can take place in more than one generation, after all, and polystylistic eclecticism in the Rochberg vein could be applied to Alfred Schnittke among others.  Post Third Stream fusion experiments at combining jazz and classical idioms has been going on for half a century and it's only been in the 21st century with efforts by composers ranging from Nikola Kapustin to Michelle Gorrell that fusions of Baroque syntactic processes with a jazz vocabulary have been taking shape, and we should throw in Henry Martin in there ,too. 

Punk might be the last avant garde movement to journalists of pop music who don't want to consider the last forty years' emergence of hip hop as the popular mainstream ... but at this point I'm too frustrated by the valorization of punk as the "last' to get more detailed about that in a post that was inspired by thinking about how lame I thought emo was twenty years ago.  If now authors in places like The Atlantic are considering how terrible what was passed off as dreamy and romantic and sexy from the Clinton years now seems, in hindsight, creepy and predatory that could signal what people are concerned about being indicators of rape culture now ... or it could be a reminder that we should not ask where the good old days were that are better than these present days, because it's not from wisdom we ask such questions. 

The annoyingly repetitious narrow range melodies that get sung four times over a jangly guitar vamp; that turns into a chorus with a handful of vocal tics; maybe the distortion pedal gets kicked on and the singer starts wailing the previous melodies an octave higher or screams them in another register.  I mean, yeah, I heard Soundgarden and Nirvana in the 1990s.  Of the two I guess Soundgarden was more musically interesting to me because I hated Nirvana.  Nirvana was just what you'd get if you took the syrupy sentimentality of Boston and inverted it into pseudo-punk anger and gloom.  Condolences can be offered for those who live Cobain while not caring for the man's music. 

Which gets me thinking about how the recent Internet Monk piece about masturbatory worship songs more or less touched the tip of a large iceberg, the iceberg of tectonic shifts in how we produce and consume music and conceive of its structure, form, and developmental processes.  In an era in which tone color can be isolated as defining musical moments what can happen in many a song is that timbre is the one thing that changes which imbues otherwise repetitive musical materials with dramatic significance.  The Nirvana song "Rape Me" was at many levels endlessly repetitive and yet, obviously, signal changes in timbre (clean, distortion, singing, screaming) established that what in another style of music would have involved what conservative/classicists call "argument" by way of developmental process has been shifted into a different plain or level; a level of production and output in which you "say" the same musical or lyrical thing over and over but that the new material gains a sense of the new by way of manipulating the output signal, clean or distorition, singing or screaming ... but music analysis has not necessarily developed a critical taxonomy that, I nthe high cultural sense, knows how to analyze what timbrel shiftis and mutation are supposed to signal at a musical level because, by and large, we "know" what it supposed to"mean" through extramusical associative contexts.  This is something thatis more readily discussed in rock and pop music criticism.  But, I digress, as often is the case in weekend blog posts. 

That's a way of saying that when in the past twenty years pop music veered slowly and steadily into what Leonard B Meyer called statistical forms and hierarchies then it's only what we would expect if Christian pop music followed suit over the last twenty years of what was going on in mainstream pop music as exemplified in the Clinton years in which a bunch of bands would vamp four chords and mumble a small-range melodic line that could explode into screaming the same melody an octave higher with distortion pedals frying the signal up to the threshold of pink noise a minute or two later (which can, make no mistake, sound amazing)--if in the last twenty years songs dropped bridges and simplified verse and chorus distinctions into floating different types of melodic/textual fragments over a steady bass (cantus firmus) then why should we be surprised if CCM takes up a revived and unrecognized return of the passacaglia ground with variations?  It only sounded "new" twenty years ago because someone hit the distortion pedal half way through the song ... even if in the Baroque era changing the stops on the organ produced a comparably similar dramatic effect.  Is there someone who ays "see, here, this is new" it was from ages long ago ... .


Cal of Chelcice said...

I was pleasantly surprised to see this piece turn to Blade Runner 2049. I don't think it's ambiguous that Stelline is, in fact, the Human-replicant hybrid, but that it draws upon a more complicated view of revolution and messianism than one might expect. Stelline is a memory crafter, but she always puts a little truth in her fabrication. But the whole point of the revolution is future-oriented. It's almost as if her genuine past is the necessary seed-bed for replicants to craft a future. She is the messiah because she can never be had, which fits well with her arc of being a sickly bubble-girl. The messiah, viz. Benjaminian leftist thought which drips over certain segments of the film, is the intervention, the abrogation, of the current order of things. But in so doing, the messiah is strictly a void. It offers freedom through the negation of Humanity's never-ending pile of bodies, the carnage of history. In some way, it makes sense that the film ends with K dying in the snow. The important point was that he made his story, he created his destiny. It's not about Stelline's personal story, or her reunion with Deckard. Her memory functioned as a dialectical negation of the otherwise typical story of civilization, vis. Wallace: protology and myth, man's quest to return to heaven's gates and the golden age. There are very Christian elements in the film, but being Benjaminian and post-Marxist, it is most certainly a post-Christian message.

On another note: someone I read likes to say that he respects our new Victorian overlords. I find that both funny and true, because it's easy to see that our current state is something like the whiplash in the Victorian era. It reacted to the open secret of decadence throughout England that had grown, like a cancerous tumor, over the reign of the Hanoverians. For distinctly non-theological reasons, but through distinctly quasi-ecclesiastical censorship customs and laws, people are increasing afraid of random sex and the dynamics of the dating scene. There's a new expectation of propriety, which may either come through the law (cases of sexual harassment and rape) or through public humiliation vis. social media. Courtship is akin to consent, as something that is not only required socially, but may even bring down the hammer of law.

Christians perhaps should find the revolutions (in the original sense) in society as amusing or peculiar, but remain aloof. We should not behave like MereO and TGC has, throwing itself sympathetically into the new moral crusade. But I digress.


Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I've thought about writing about 2049 for months but I didn't want to risk spoiling the entire movie for any friends who had not yet seen the film and might read my blog. So even though I liked the film and think it's better made in several respects than Scott's original I haven't officially blogged about it yet. I might, but I've got too many other things I'm hoping to tackle so I figured I'd throw in some 2049 stuff here just to get to it. It deserves more detailed writing than I feel I'm likely to get around to doing for it.

In existential terms, perhaps, K managed to find and fulfill the kind of destiny and death he wanted. The way you describe Stelline's role it's a role she can have even if she weren't the human-hybrid replicant, and I'm still on the fence as to whether, given what Tyrell was so clear about in the original Blade Runner, that the replicant baby didn't die after four years. There's nothing about the birthing process of replicants as such that is clear except that "normally" they appear fully formed. And yet only a hybrid could live LONGER than four years based on the constraints Tyrell mentioned. But, like I was writing a moment ago I figure I'm not going to manage to write about 2049 as much as I was thinking of doing last year. Stuff in the offline world just comes up now and then.