IN NOT DEFENSE OF CATEY SHAW | “brooklyn baby” v. “brooklyn girls”

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If you are a young woman living in the city of Brooklyn then you have been uncommonly blessed with a surplus of Summer 2014 Anthems.  The rest of the world just has to pretend that they’re Fancy or Happy or Problem, but you have been granted not one but two tracks that describe not only what you aspire to be but what you are exactly.  The first is Lana Del Rey’s profound and beautiful “Brooklyn Baby.”  The second is Catey Shaw’s triumphantly anthemic “Brooklyn Girls.”

People do not like “Brooklyn Girls” very much.  This is not surprising because it is bad song about something annoying that everyone hates.  Catey Shaw is a bit of a tragic figure, and she’s been clobbered with so much hatred in the past week that it’s become trendy now to semi-defend her.  It’s hard to imagine that she didn’t know exactly what she was getting into when she did this, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this turns out to be an attention-grabbing PR move, or at the very least some world-class trolling.

People are mostly fond of “Brooklyn Baby.”  This is not surprising because Lana Del Rey is a. the greatest artist of our generation and b. on the post-guilt-victim-of-internet-hate-clobbering image recovery tip.  The internet did Lana wrong, and now we’re making it up to her by giving her album excellent reviews that finally touch at her artistic brilliance.  This is noble, deserved, and overall excellent.  So is “Brooklyn Baby,” a track that admirably sums up what it means to live in Brooklyn (Northwest – #notallBK) in all its prideful, painful complexity.

In a relatively insipid article, Elizabeth Coscia of the New York Observer beat me to the punch and made the obvious comparison between “Brooklyn Baby” and “Brooklyn Girls,” calling Lana the occupant of a cult-ish pedestal “that could literally fill swimming pools with money” while defending Shaw as a real life embodiment of “the starving artist stereotype.”  The gist of the article is that Catey and Lana are doing more or less the same thing but that Lana gets away with it due to “her cult’s unconditional love,” while Catey is unfairly maligned.

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Deliberate ignorance of historical critical attitudes towards LDR aside, Coscia’s comparison is remarkably off base.  There is something very obviously different about “Brooklyn Girls” and “Brooklyn Baby” – the problem is that it’s not all that easy to talk about.  The easy answer that any lazy critic could give you is that “Brooklyn Baby” is “clearly” “ironic,” while “Brooklyn Girls” is “tragically” “serious.”  This is a common defense for everything from mustaches to bath salts consumption, and it’s been proven to be unsuccessful to nearly everyone time-and-time again (especially in the field of LDR Studies).  For the sake of explicit experience, intent does not matter – a shitty mustache on the subway is a shitty mustache on the subway no matter how much yr bro giggled to himself as he waxed it.

“Brooklyn Baby” and “Brooklyn Girls” are ostensibly presenting the same sentiment (the same mustache).  Both are talking about something that “girls” in “Brooklyn” (not necessarily a place, according to Catey) “do” as a result of their “attitude.”  Neither Catey nor Lana are from Brooklyn, but both participate in the Brooklyn culture refugee experience that is best demonstrated by the 1 pm taco truck line at the back of Union Pool.  Both their songs present this experience without explicit commentary so much as participatory description.  “I’ve got feathers in my hair / I get high on hydroponic weed” – not “I affirm the presence of feather in my hair and hydroponic weed in my lungs,” but just that have these things and I am a part of their existence, and that this existence is a part of the contemporary experience of being a “Brooklyn Baa-by.”  “Jay-Z bumps in our headphones / drinks on top of the brownstones” – not, “you should bump Jay-Z in yr headphones and drink on top of pretty townhouses in order to be a Brooklyn Girl,” but “Jay-Z bumping in our headphones and drinking on top of pretty townhouses are conditions of our Brooklyn-based existence.”

You could say (many do say) that Lana is unhappy about her participation in this existence, and that her track is a snide take-down of the enthusiastic participation that Shaw’s seems to embody.  But that’s doing an ontological disservice to everyone involved – “Brooklyn Baby” never once blinks and never once winks.  It’s just as actively participatory as “Brooklyn Girls,” and, in its sadcore grandiosity, arguably several notches prouder.  Catey at least doesn’t take this seriously enough to hint at profundity (“and tonight there’s no use denyin’ / that tonight we run the island” – which island, I wonder?  Long?  Manhattanr?  Or is there an extra river on the other side of Catey’s Brooklyn that I don’t know about?).  Lana’s heart-breaker “I don’t have to fucking explain it” bridge, on the other hand, challenges you to not take her seriously.  She doesn’t have to fucking explain it – you get it and you feel it long before the bass-voiced Lou Reed stand-in cuts in at the end of the track.

Because we as Brooklyn Babies (you are a Brooklyn Baby if you are reading this, whether you live here or not) are painfully self-aware about our authenticity and all that pomo bullshit, we can only experience “Brooklyn Girls” and “Brooklyn Baby” with an accompanying cringe.  Drew Millard explicates this well enough in his kind of basic but mostly alright Catey defense for “4 Pins” – “What upsets people about “Brooklyn Girls” is not the affected Nets cap resting just so atop Shaw’s head, the Instagram-filtered whimsy or the overdone synth-farts. No, it’s the knowledge that this person is making us—the Brooklyn Hipsterati, the uncomfortably white appropriators, the chosen ones from our hometowns who made it out of Nowheresville, USA—look like complete fucking idiots.”  He goes on to invoke a Brooklyn “uncanny valley” in which “people are mad because Catey Shaw has held a mirror up to Brooklyn and we’ve finally realized how ridiculous we look.”  Yeah yeah yeah – this argument is getting tired, and Catey Shaw is only the latest and maybe most explicit example.  Maybe her greatest contribution to the world is that she will finally beat the discussion to death.

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What is wonderful about “Brooklyn Girls” – this is not a defense, this song really sucks and I hate this girl’s fake Joanna Newsom voice more than anything in the world – is that it manages to create such a visceral reaction for so many people.  I feel something when I listen to this – first hatred toward Catey for saying it, followed by hatred for the people I think she stands for, followed by a buried and self-denying hatred for myself for moving to Brooklyn and denying my roots and giving a shit about how my hair looks right now to all the people drinking on top of the brownstones outside this coffee shop I’m hanging out at while I wish that I was up there drinking with them too.  I feel so much anger and hatred when I hear this and that is real and wonderful and in many ways more directly effective than all the Burzum in the world.  This is self-loathing fight music.

But Lana invokes something much more than that.  All of that hatred – external and internal – is present in the critical experience of “Brooklyn Baby,” but it’s raised to a level beyond fighting – there’s a sinking into the loathing, an affirmative acceptance of all that self-aware pain.  More than anything, it’s the patented LDR sadness – the track is permeated by an agonized saudade to it, absolutely proud of it’s Brooklyn bullshit but still longing for something more.  “Brooklyn Girls” forces me to either deny my inner “Brooklyn” or to false-affirm it via Ke$ha-style irony (i am a #bkgirl LOL #pbr #goNets); “Brooklyn Baby” lets me sink into that confusing place that I cannot help but exist in and experience it in its agonizing entirety.

No one wants to be Brooklyn Girl anymore.  We ruined that the second the first kid from Evanston bitched about a suicide-caused L-Train stoppage on Twitter.  But by this point we can’t avoid it – for better or for worse we exist in this self-conscious mess and it’s going to take some type of global calamity to get out of it.  “Brooklyn Girls” – or, more importantly, the backlash and anti-backlash to “Brooklyn Girls” – is only going to make us fight our way deeper and deeper into the pain (just as it drives development deeper and deeper into geographical Brooklyn).  But “Brooklyn Baby” at least lets us sink into “Brooklyn” without denying either its problematics or its all-encompassing reality.  More than anything it’s an affirmation in the most complete sense, an empathetic response to a cultural pathology that chastens without passing judgement.  In the inescapably self-aware world of “Brooklyn,” there’s nothing more that we could hope for.   We’re here, we’re wearing feathers, we’re basic as fuck – and if you dont like it, you can beat it.

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