OK GUYS I REALLY GOT IT THIS TIME –
(pt. 1 of a lot)
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The irony of this deployment is in having us believe that our “liberation” is in the balance. – Michel Foucault
1. MAYDAY, MAYDAY / PARTY ANYWAY
I want to talk about a music video I saw once. The song is called “Mayday,” and it was recording by an unsigned L.A.-based electro artist named PrettyBoi. The music video was directed by USC cinema school student Ian Asbjørnsen and posted to Youtube on September 9, 2010. It comes with a caption – “WARNING: If you are uncomfortable with suicide, partying, & girl/girl action, please DO NOT watch this video.” I’m going to post the link to the video now – please take this WARNING: into account.
You were WARNED: – “Mayday” really does contain all of those things. A barely averted self-inflicted gunshot to the head, excessive alcohol use, and – in a climactic moment – a prolonged “deep” kiss between PrettyBoi and one of her model-ish friends. Rarely does a music video so accurately live up to its exclamatory description. Violence, drugs, lesbians – “Mayday” literally has it all.
Let’s “unpack” this. From the start, PrettyBoi and Ian Asbjørnsen are setting themselves up to accomplish an unlikely 21st-century task – to shock underground electro fans with images of partying, violence, and sexuality. They imply, by leading off with a WARNING:, that what follows is going to be at least a little bit scandalous. There’s some intentional irony involved – how many internet users are actually going to be scared away by an invocation of “girl/girl action?” – but there’s also a bit of seriousness. Something startling is going to happen. No, it won’t actually offend you, but it will maybe **excite** you.
Why would this video excite anyone? Because sex is appealing and guns are cool and parties are fun, yes. But there’s more going on here – there’s an element of subversion. This is something that I’m not supposed to be seeing. The WARNING: establishes an aura of taboo through which I experience the entire video. My personal feelings – or my society’s feelings – about depictions of suicide, partying, and girl/girl action don’t matter – by reading the WARNING:, I prescribe to a particular experience. This is **supposed to be** subversive. And, by extension – this is **supposed to be** exciting.
But accompanying the excitement and the subversion is something deeper – there’s an element of obligatory liberation. Because along with subversion always comes a necessary experience of freedom. Themes of liberation are abundantly evident in “Mayday” – PrettyBoi’s journey starts in the prison of herself (alone, with a gun, in a void) and progresses through increasingly exposed arenas before concluding in the open, with friends, at the beach. She journeys from her bedroom, to a car, through the streets of Venice, and finally ends up in front of the open ocean under the open sky. Accompanying this journey is her consistent connection with community. There are reminders of the darkness throughout (shots of the void, shots of her suicide note, the repeated invocation of “a mental breakdown”), but they’re always followed and overcome by images of friends, dancing, and touching – “hey, there’s nothing wrong with having fun tonight / alright.” The video’s darkest moment comes when HOTTIE, in a drunken haze, confronts PrettyBoi with the suicide note – PrettyBoi responds by rolling her eyes and kissing her. Intimacy triumphs over isolation, sex over emotional entrapment, partying over systemic oppression – “mayday, mayday / party anyway.” It’s not an accident that the video ends with a shot of PrettyBoi with her arms around her friends, disrespectfully cuddling on top of an American flag.
All of this could only be made possible, of course, by the subversion of limitations – that is, by an open embrace of the content decried by the WARNING:. Freedom can only come as a result of defiance, a refusal of the need to be WARNED:. Suicide needs to be shrugged off – partying needs to be celebrated – performative sexuality needs to be accepted as a manifestation of freedom. The horror of structure is eliminated by the joy of liberating subversion.
The relationship between subversion and liberation is necessary for the development of the video’s undeniable positivity. By the end of “Mayday” I’m convinced that I’ve witnessed something heartwarming. Part of this is the video’s visual content – the journey from the moment of world-ending isolation to BFF-core joy (gun at the temple to smiles at the beach) – I’m impelled to think that anything that spurred this transformation is necessarily a good thing. The music – which moves from ironized descending major to the longingly sincere strains of a weakly resolving I – ii – iii – I progression – helps. But the real overwhelming sense of goodness comes from the implied defiance of the structures of oppression that are hinted at by the WARNING:. The goodness of “Mayday” is revealed in its opposition to restriction – free expression’s triumph over the need to be WARNED:.
If the innate desire to defy a WARNING: isn’t enough to turn me toward the goodness of liberation, my emotional experience of the video is enough to confirm the necessity of escape. It’s impossible for me to associate suicide with anything good – it’s almost as impossible for me to associate the embrace of a smiling friend with anything bad. I’m forced to link the progression from the former to the latter with positivity. By the same token, I’m forced to embrace liberation – an essential aspect of the progression – as a good contra suicide/restriction/WARNING’s: bad. I’m left with the desire to be free and to defy. I want to break out of the prison of society by means of alcohol and free sexuality. I want to conquer suicide by partying and girl/girl action.
In other words, when I watch “Mayday” I’m confronted with a means of escape from the societal standards that force PrettyBoi into the prison of suicidal depression. I watch the proceeding success of that escape, and I’m inspired. Society is a trap, but free love and revelry are the means of its sabotage. I travel with PrettyBoi from the void to community. I defy the WARNING: and embrace freedom.
This would all be beautiful it were true. But, to cop a Foucaultean rhetorical switch, I’m going to ruin everything – this song is awful. PrettyBoi is a joke and “Mayday” is objectively one of the worst music videos I have ever seen.
“Objectively” is the wrong word in a conversation about critical opinions and taste. At the same time, though, it is difficult to exist in contemporary American society and to not find this video to be completely repellent. Walking through my emotional experiences from start to finish, I can identify – embarrassment at the unrealistically generic content of the suicide note – disgust at the trivialization of suicide – horror at the vaunting of partying over the sanctity of life – shame for the theme of “writhing on a bed in a tight skirt” as autonomous and fulfilled existence – annoyance at the use of Los Angeles landmarks as validation for mediocre art – moral offense at the employment of meaningless sexuality in response to emotional devastation – general dislike for the generic basicness of it all that only barely attempts to disguise itself under a sheen of Instagram coloration and low-threshold audio compression. The entire project is **offensive** to me – it intends to seriously embrace a system of ethics and aesthetics that act in direct defiance to my own.
This offensiveness is epitomized in the first minute of the video proper, following the 30-second “I Hate You” introduction. “I Hate You” features PrettyBoi standing in front of a black screen holding a handgun to her temple as her heavily distorted screaming shrieks “I HATE YOU, I HATE YOU” over a twinkling major descent. The obvious ironic juxtaposition of a twinkling melody and youthful beauty with agonized screaming and suicide is somewhat jarring, even if it is a bit typical. The effect is immediately undercut, however, by a buzzing iPhone and a call from someone known only as “HOTTIE.” “PrettyBoi here,” PrettyBoi responds. “I’m kinda in the middle of something – ” A cheap electro beat starts up and the song proper begins. Within 30 seconds of stashing her gun, PrettyBoi is surrounded by thin young women kneeling on her twin-sized bed, pulsating in inexpensive tight dresses. The intent, based on the lyrics and PrettyBoi’s grin, is clear – the scene is supposed to embody playful eroticism and debauched fun. The effect, though, is more or less the opposite – the music is dragging and mostly unpleasant, the dancers look awkward and visably unhappy, and the viewer becomes painfully aware of the obvious fact that he’s not watching a party but four (most likely poorly paid) models sitting in someone’s dorm room, rhythmically writhing to a song they don’t very much like. The reaction is less titilated joy than – ” you gave up suicide, for **this?**”
This scene reveals “Mayday’s” real offense – PrettyBoi’s great failure isn’t her inability to meet **my** critical standards, or the generally accepted critical standards of American society as a whole – it’s “Mayday”‘s inability to meet the critical standards that it sets **for itself.** “Mayday” – from the “HOTTIE” deferred suicide on – promises free sexuality as an antidote to suicidal isolation. Its WARNING:, its increasingly open visual arenas, its chord changes, its basic plot and lyrics, all confirm this. PrettyBoi promises a goal, she lays out the means by which she will achieve said goal, and she fails spectacularly.* Even if I’m willing to put everything aside in acceptance and affirmation of PrettyBoi’s universe, I’m still met in “Mayday” with resounding disappointment.
Tay Zonday promises to turn away from the mic when he breathes, and he delivers every time. Rebecca Black sets out to make an embarrassment of talentless wealth and delivers one of the best all-time defenses for the indulgence of spoiled children. PrettyBoi sets out to create a video that will excite its viewer with a titilating defiance of convention and in doing so demonstrate that the joy of partying can overcome the horror of suicidal depression. Instead, she does the exact opposite – “Mayday” makes partying look boring, sex feel cheap, friendship seem meaningless and liberation to be nothing more than nihilistic laziness – all the while doing nothing to undercut the serious horrors of suicide, emotional isolation, and systemic oppression. “Mayday” emphasizes everything just-so wrong, making very clear its intentions while resoundingly demonstrating its complete inability to achieve them.
I’m left with a longing. I sink into the absence between intention and demonstration, effect and affect, and I simultaneously experience longing for everything PrettyBoi supposedly wants and a scorn for her means of achieving it. I yearn for liberation, but I reject partying. I yearn for defiance, but I reject sexuality. I hate suicide, but I find its shrugging off because of a phone call from “HOTTIE” to be completely despicable.
In doing so, I experience a negative revelation – an anti-telos, an ontology of absence – a gnomon. Instead of a vision of partying’s ability to liberate a potential suicide from the horror of systemic oppression and isolation, I’m presented with a vision of its complete failure to do so – **a failed vision that does not divest itself from its belief in the absolute necessity of its perceived intent.** My rejection of the means is only a more severe reminder of the necessity of its ends. In other words – I turn against “Mayday” without refusing the overall intention of PrettyBoi’s project.
I experience this dual movement (this gnomonic movement) so strongly, in fact, that I’m almost forced to ask – what if this was PrettyBoi’s intent all along? What if the intended effect of “Mayday” was a conflict between pathos and bathos that resulted in an experience of antagonistic longing? What if PrettyBoi and Ian Asbjørnsen created “Mayday” with the intent to fail?
This would be an absurd conclusion. It goes against our basic conception of purpose of art, which, even when it sets out to create unpleasant experiences that conjure a sense of longing, still lets you know that your experience of the artwork is supposed to exist within the confines of artistic intent (or, in the case of art whose end is free interpretation – intentionally outside said confines, and – therefore – still inside – :/).
But for a second let’s take this up as a possibility. Let’s accept that maybe PrettyBoi is doing something bizarre – maybe she is creating an artwork that intends to fail in regard to the standards that it sets for itself and that, in doing so, she opens up the possibility of a critical experience that exists outside the “text” of her work, but not outside her “extra-textual” intent.
We can look at this theoretically, or we can look at this experientially. This video makes me cringe. I think it makes most people who share my sensibilities (and I think my sensibilities are, in the end, pretty basic) cringe. It’s a painfully bad video, with a painfully bad song, with painfully bad acting, with a painfully over-extreme WARNING: to head it all off. It very clearly attempts to do something major, provocative, inspirational – and it very clearly fails. But, despite its failure, it still manages to conjure the need for liberation, the horror of suicide, the beauty of community, the possibility of resolution in a major chord. In “Mayday,” I see what PrettyBoi could have been but what she so drastically is not. I’m impelled toward “Mayday”‘s absences – absences that couldn’t have existed had PrettyBoi not – intentionally or not – put them there herself.
In other words, “Mayday”‘s revelation to me is entirely outside of “Mayday.” My deconstruction of “Mayday” fails to comprehend my experience of “Mayday” because my experience is, to misuse a Derridian concept, “outside the text.” In “Mayday,” I experience a project that is in every way defined by a liberal, sex-positive, anti-systemic telos, but its revelation is – unlikely though it may seem – conservative.
This may be completely unintentional. In the case of PrettyBoi, given her and Asbjørnsen’s complete lack of apparent brilliance (#sorrynotsorry) I am almost positive that it is completely unintentional. But PrettyBoi, in her extreme failure, is a good unwitting example of something remarkable – an intentional artistic failure that results in a negative critical experience that implicitly pushes the critic toward the gnomonic revelation between the failed sensible (interior) frame and the unspoken, intentional (exterior) frame.
I don’t think this is a critical experience that’s only happening in f-list Youtube videos – I think it’s happening in a lot of places, especially in contemporary American pop music. I think it’s most evident in pop culture depictions of performative sexuality (particularly female sexuality) and their relationship to the liberal, sex-positive, party-focused YOLO attitude of Millenial “youth” culture. For that reason I call the phenomenon “post-slutwave,” labeled so for its self-aware manipulation of the sex-positive feminist aesthetic of the late ’90s and early 2000s as epitomized by Beyoncé, Britney Spears, and, most prominently, Lady Gaga. I think this “slutwave” aesthetic is rooted in the earlier phases of Madonna’s career, which itself is a response to the basic foundations of pop music as sexual liberation that were established in the 1950s and fully developed in the 1960s and ’70s. I think we’re currently experiencing a rejection of this progression, not portrayed through outright aggression (as in the art and writings of 2nd-wave feminism) or through the subversive developments of Riot Grrrl and equivalent ’90s feminist movements, but through an unironic “appropriation” of sex-positive aesthetics that results – once again, unironically – outside the typical boundaries of our critical understanding of depictions of sexuality. I think this rejection is sometimes intentional, sometimes unintentional, but most frequently purely natural – an attempt at reality that forces the critic to confront the artist’s sexuality as emotional experience instead of politicized art.
Before we can rewrite the history of pop music and feminism, though, we need to develop an adequate critical framework. For that I want to turn to Raoul Eshelman’s theory of the “dual frame,” a manipulation of the more typical postmodern conception of the frame that allows for what he calls post-postmodern “performatist” works. Because Eshelman’s theory focuses mostly on film and literature, it will be necessary to manipulate it, re-orienting his frames from inner “characteristic” and outer “work” to inner “work” and outer “career.” In doing so I think it will become apparent that, in a pop music context, “career” is synonymous with “character,” which itself is synonymous with “artist.” In performing this flip I think we can open up Eshelman’s theory to better understand our interaction with 21st-century pop music, and in doing so re-establish the limits – and potentials – of art in the contemporary era.
I don’t think that PrettyBoi is a part of an innovative movement in art. But I think that the spectacular failure of her video is indicative of something happening in contemporary popular culture that we can’t currently explain. To isolate the phenomenon as a failure of contemporary theory, or a success of contemporary art, or a mere brokenness in contemporary culture, is beside the point – I think it most likely reflects all three, and the fact that even a profoundly minor artist like PrettyBoi is a part of it exemplifies its enormity- and accordingly demonstrates the necessity of having this discussion.
* The extremity of the discrepancy between PrettyBoi’s intent and “Mayday’s” affect is heightened by the supposed back story – that I can’t seem to substantiate beyond Youtube comments – that the “Mayday” video depicts PrettyBoi’s coming out as a lesbian. The “coming out story,” perhaps more than any contemporary genre, is defined by a conflict between restrictive structures and individual liberation, almost always with a theme of intense positivity accompanying the latter’s success over the former. It’s a genre that is almost always marked by a great degree of emotional sincerity, and the massacre “Mayday” makes of the topic is all the more poignant because of the tenderness that such stories typically inspire.
** Thanks to everyone who has ever endured me talking about this, and thanks to everyone who’s talked back – especially Nathan, Leah, Gabby, Joe, Becca, Brennan, Harrison, Miller, Adam. If anyone has thoughts, arguments, holes, or the means to fill them, I really want to hear them. Leave a comment or email me or w/e. There’s a lot more to figure out.