Tag Archives: intellectual crush

I’ve never felt any special affinity for the bad-boy hedonism of the hair-metal era, but there’s at least one thing I can say for those guys: They had a certain commitment. You never wondered how they felt about partying, getting messed up, getting laid. They were clearly for it. They were dedicated to it with the same unquestioning, unrelenting vigor others point toward god or country…

Most everything these enthusiastic cartoons have had to say, then and since, about reckless alcoholism, drug abuse, and compulsive systematic banging of every last possible groupie comes in the form of giddy, giggly locker-room stories. They’re idealists, some of the last true believers in a weird idea that had floated around for decades: that rock music could be used to escape all the moral and hygienic values of the working and middle classes– self-restraint, work ethic, humility, sexual decency– and live happily among baser pleasures.

…You can trace something similar through hip-hop and R&B. I never felt any special affinity for the really glittery, wealth-and-consumption obsessed end of mainstream hip-hop in the later 90s, either, but it tended to have the same sense of commitment, to an idea that feels much easier to swallow: that rap and capitalism had been used to escape the constraints of poverty, and live happily among all the comforts of material excess and economic power. For nearly two decades now, the colorful party-hard decadence mid-American kids used to want from L.A. rockers has been the colorful party-hard decadence they want from, say, Southern rappers. (You can almost imagine a stripper pole, somewhere around the Continental Divide, being cut into batons and symbolically passed between genres.) And as of 2012, we’ve even spent a few years clocking the emergence of something that works a lot more like an Ellis novel, music wherein a lifestyle of glamor and excess provokes sullenness, emptiness, loneliness, anhedonia, and spiritual/moral crises in everyone who gets a taste of them. If there’s anything that’s going to keep the Weeknd‘s name floating through music discussions far into the future, it’s the way that act has served as perfect shorthand for the same qualities you can see bits of in the worlds of Drake, or Kanye West, or Kid Cudi— or Lana Del Rey, orTwin Shadow, or scattered far and wide across the pop landscape.

It’s usually men, and it’s usually a performance of a kind of masculinity– the “deep,” dangerous, damaged guy who, in the right moment, comes off a little more intriguing and romantic than his cheerful hearty counterparts. You know the dimensions and signatures of this world already, don’t you? Life is easy, but life is hard. There are drugs everywhere– synthetic, medical, prescription-grade– and songs tell stories by cataloging exactly how much of them the speaker’s had, from moment to moment, usually somewhere in the vicinity of too much, too many, plus too much liquor, to the point of hallucinatory overload and frayed, chaotic emotions, as if those are the moments when life becomes real and worth dramatizing. The drugs aren’t described as much fun, not as something that creates new and exciting sensations– they’re things that numb sensation, often taken in a glassy-eyed and faintly pleasureless routine. A wide streak of anhedonia surrounds everything. Nothing’s exactly pleasurable. Sex is like the drugs, glamorous, dangerous, annoyingly empty, and transactional in a way that, implausibly, is somehow emotionally worse for the speaker than the women being spoken of. (Often the women turn out to be mercenary about it themselves, which offends some hidden idealism the singer suddenly develops.) The past is nostalgic, the site of some kind of purity that makes the present seem only more turbulent. The speaker’s devilish, cynical, and rapacious; he’s frozen and suffering. He’s dissolute. He’s like Dorian Gray writing songs about the portrait of Dorian Gray.

–Nitsuh Abebe, “Uncomfortably Numb: Eighties-style druggy hedonism and the songwriting vision of Frank Ocean,” (bolding mine)

The rest of the column includes a lot of (wonderful) Frank Ocean love, but I was taken by the description of ‘this sort of pulp-thriller take on the sad glamour and anhedonic emptiness of the high life’ in pop music lately. Why have these themes (re-) emerged and why does it have resonance with us?

I know very few people who are rich enough to truly enjoy a ‘high’ life, but really, there seems to be something in this glassy-eyed music that reflects contemporary pining. Is it our frustration with the synthetic when what we are yearning for is the authentic?

If so, there is nothing that embodies that more than emotionally laden yet flat lyrics atop autotuning and dubstep.

(hat tip to the everlovely Seth Grass, who in forwarding me this article, has introduced me to my new intellectual crush & writing inspiration, Nitsuh Abebe.

Nitsuh, you had me at the quote under your ‘about me’ on your tumblr:

“it might be too ‘high level’ for me, like writing that belongs in a book or magazine — not on the internet.”

I want that in my obituary.)


To mark “International in Support of Victims of Torture Day” today, Amnesty International’s Security with Human Rights campaign has released a short film called ‘Hooded’.

Just two minutes long, “Hooded” uses abstract images and intense sound design to convey the auditory and visual experiences associated with torture.

Disturbing but gripping, it’s definitely worth a watch. Just don’t expect sunshine and kittens. (And while you’re at it, sign your name to some of Amnesty’s actions to tell governments you don’t think torture is ever justified.)

It’s also interesting to watch this film in light of analysis made by Elaine Scarry, author of The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, which was first published in 1985:

Amnesty International’s ability to bring about the cessation of torture depends centrally on its ability to communicate the reality of physical pain to those who are not themselves in pain. When, for example, one receives a letter from Amnesty in the mail, the words of that letter must somehow convey to the reader the aversiveness being experienced inside the body of someone whose country may be far away, whose name can barely be pronounced, and whose ordinary life & unknown except that it is known that that ordinary life has ceased to exist.

The language of the letter must also resist and overcome the inherent pressures toward tonal instability: that language must at once be characterized by the greatest possible tact (for the most intimate realm of another human being’s body is the implicit or explicit subject) and by the greatest possible immediacy (for the most, crucial fact about pain is its presentness and the most crucial fact about torture is that it is happening). Tact and immediacy ordinarily work against one another; thus the difficulty of sustaining either tone is compounded by the necessity of sustaining both simultaneously. 

The goal of the letter is not simply to make the reader a passive recipient of information about torture but to encourage his or her active assistance in eliminating torture. The “reader of the letter” may now, for example, become the “writer of a letter”

–Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain, pg 9 (bolding mine)

Scarry’s observations pre-date ‘Hooded’ by 27 years.  Yet her words still remain relevant at describing how Amnesty drives forward its work on changing public perceptions on torture.

While certainly a wavering balance, ‘Hooded’ succeeds in tactfully marrying the viewer to the victim’s perspective through first-person shots. Immediacy is conveyed through focus on contemporary torture techniques, such as water-boarding and blaring loud sounds, as well as context-setting at the beginning of the clip.

I haven’t read Scarry’s work in detail, but as Amnesty has incorporated more visual and video materials into its advocacy, I’d wager her commentary is even more apt than when simply applied to letter-writing campaigns. After all,  ‘Hooded’ makes it so the viewer becomes the torture victim, literally forced into a hood and exposed to a spectrum of pain.

[As an aside, how did I only just discover this woman?? A textual critic who focuses on the symbolism of pain and how it makes and unmakes bodies in politics and culture? Sounds like Monica all over it.

Not to mention that this interview includes a colleague describing being in a car with her: “She took in each road sign, pondering all their possible meanings. She was being playful but also serious. She feels you’re obliged to read them this way. She feels you need to read the whole world this way.

A woman after my own heart. #academiccrush]