Some things you can pry from my cold dead fingers, always and forever. A few days ago I was saying that about my beloved T. Rex records. Well, I had said it in a much more elegant way than that, but I think the gist of it was plain to see. The point is, some things, some cultural totems and personal touchstones, can only be pried away in death. You can add my Talking Heads records to that. You can pry Speaking in Tongues from my cold dead fingers, if that’s how you wanna put it. It’s a record that, besides being a famous classic and an instant party, is one of those works that doesn’t get older or worn out by too much familiarity. It goes beyond mere personal nostalgia, though of course, I did grow up with it. If something can remain meaningful across a lifetime, from childhood to adulthood, and exponentially so across generations, that’s the antithesis of personal nostalgia. Personal nostalgia is when we feel sentimentally attached to things we rationally know are actually valueless or downright bad just because we imprinted on them as ducklings; things that, from novelty pop songs to toppled political regimes, should really be best forgotten. When something that amused our childhood selves continues to be meaningful over decades, meaningful beyond just the ability to trigger memories, that’s your testament that art really is the only human thing that carries over. This is why we care so much about buildings on fire.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the goth aesthetic is just that – an aesthetic commanded by choice of lipstick and accessories, to which musical taste is just another satellite. Fair enough. Goths care about the details of their material style more than most subcultures. Goth music may be an undefined genre, but it’s very definitely a thing. No one can be goth or a fan of goth without bowing to Bauhaus, a group who, in their brief years together, set the standard for both musical and visual goth aesthetics. That’s decades of influence for a career spanning four albums (plus one reunion.) Personally, I’m somewhat loath to give too much credit to a band whose lead vocalist has a set of vocal mannerisms that just so happens to be identical to David Bowie’s, and I’m not the first sharp-eared critic to point out the similarity, but apparently Peter Murphy finds it deeply rankling when people impugn upon his originality. It’s purely a coincidence that he sings that way, alright? Anyway, this is seminal goth music, and in no way a group of men who built their entire musical identity out of a dog-eared copy of Station to Station and then went on to inspire a whole new generation of kids to build their entire identities on a small handful of songs and videos. It’s just the circle of life and it moves us all, as the poet said.
“Help gets so unhelpful, near the end”
Marianne Faithfull can be kind of a downer sometimes. She gets into some of the darker corners of the average human experience, having lived them all, of course. She began performing this adaptation of a Caroline Blackwood poem in the 70’s, when it was still unclear whether or not her own substance abuse would take her down. It didn’t, because apparently Marianne Faithfull has a constitution unrivaled by anyone except some guy named Keith. This woman is going to sit and watch the world burn to the ground and then reach for another drink. On a realistic note though, Faithfull has had to face mortality in recent years. She is no longer about to drown in whiskey and heroin, but she’s facing the mundane reality that no one ever really survives. She’s undergone treatment for breast cancer and other health problems, and she’s seen many close friends pass away. The death of Anita Pallenberg last year was particularly hard. Those things lend a new level of gravitas to Faithfull’s latest work. (As if gravitas was a thing she was lacking.) She was never just playing at being one step away from oblivion, but now oblivion is inevitable, a burden of time, not a threat of her own making. No one comes close to Faithfull when it comes to exploring themes of shame and regret, desperate hope and longing, love and redemption. She has the optimism and black humor of a soldier who returns alone from the battlefield.
This is everything that’s wrong with the Rolling Stones: another one of Mick Jagger’s absurd tales of mindless sexual conquest backed with the same tired riffs. By 1983 the Stones had sunk into self-parody, and judging by the tongue-in-cheek video, they were well aware of it. Taking the stance of “yes, we’re pretty silly at this point but we’re good at what we do” was understandable. Imagine trying to generate new ideas when you’re 40 years old, you’re trying to record your 17th album and you hate your coworkers. Jagger’s urge to take himself seriously would take the shape of an abortive solo career. (At this point he was hoarding his ‘best’ songs for his own project.) Keith Richards had stopped taking himself seriously around the time the band stopped being blues purists, and the others had never taken themselves seriously in the first place. The fans, meanwhile, proved that they didn’t need seriousness to keep them paying for the product. And that collective attitude kept the Stones rolling straight into the millennium and beyond. They don’t care if they’re not relevant, they just do what they do. They’re also among the last of a dying breed, literally. Blues based rock music is struggling today – nobody takes it seriously anymore! Also, nobody wants to listen to songs about the simple pleasures of fucking and discarding an interchangeable series of women. It’s just not what the conversation is about today. This entertainment is retrograde. There are many elements of rock star culture that we can’t zoom away from fast enough – the glorification of predatory sexual behavior, for example – but I don’t think we’ll ever lose our fascination for figures like Mick Jagger, people who are so larger than life that the very idea of their lifestyle is enough to fuel decades of profitable work.
Finally, a song about female masturbation! Finally, as in 35 years ago. Cyndi Lauper cracked open the door of female self-loving, and as a result, a generation of girls grew up to be whores and lesbians.The world really, really needs an anthem celebrating lady-pleasure, and here you have it, in all of its naughty glory. (My favorite part is that she’s jacking it to gay porn.) To be fair to the mens, it’s not that there are very many songs about male masturbation either, although it’s often implied. Masturbators in general have been a very underserved demographic, not getting a lot of pop culture glory. Cyndi Lauper set out to change that – in 1983 – and still remains pretty much alone on the playlist. All Cyndi achieved at the time was to help bring about the creation of Parental Advisory stickers, earning herself a spot on the PMRC’s “filthy fifteen” list of songs too filthy for the ears of children. Times have changed enough that we can hear it now as the innocent fun that it is, since we’ve mostly come to accept masturbation as a normal part of life, as opposed to a perversion or a symptom of pathetic sadness. Still, it’s understandable that no one really feels inspired to write odes to their own left hand – or whatever they like to use – because, well, it’s pretty mundane and there’s not much inherent dramatic value. Minus the frisson of guilt and shame and sadness, masturbation is just not very interesting. I suppose that we can congratulate ourselves on our progress in normalizing something that was perfectly normal all along, although honestly the existence of one hit pop song about female sexual self gratification seems like kind of a small step on the path towards equality. Baby steps, ladies, baby steps.
Seriously though, if there are any other songs about jacking it that I don’t know about, please submit them.
Shaking it, if you didn’t know, is a metaphor for sex. You didn’t know that, did you? Yeah. And rock music, even at this late date of 1983, is trying to incite youth to lustfulness, right before your very eyes. David Bowie, whom you’ve never heard of before, may appear to be a very clean and upstanding young man whose hair just naturally looks like that, but he is, in fact, a sexual deviant – like all rock performers – who uses the devil’s jungle music to corrupt your children’s moral fibers. This music promotes fornication and homosexuality… homosexual fornication, even. You want to put a stop to all this gay fornication, but there’s nothing you can do about it, because it’s too late; rock music has become so thoroughly mainstream there’s now a television channel devoted to it, allowing degenerate people like David Bowie to finally infiltrate the American heartland with their entreaties to ‘shake it’ and ‘dance the blues’. Your children are going to move to New York and San Francisco, become homosexuals, cross-dress, fornicate madly, build their own subculture, create great works of music and art and literature, survive the “Gay Plague”, gain political traction, fight for equality, settle down and get married, adopt and raise children, and just generally make the world a better place. And that’s just your sons. Don’t get me started on what your female children are up to. You should have banned MTV when you had the chance.
Peaches is best known for a song called Fuck the Pain Away, and for performing in a glue-on mustache and a strap-on dick, so it goes without saying that sex is a favorite topic of hers. I’ve always been of the opinion that her talent for shock value is more interesting than her actual music, but I’m also invested in the idea of music being a vehicle for boundary pushing, big ideas… social change, even. And we’ve often seen that music that effectively does those things is not necessarily the very best music, or made by the most proficient musicians. Peaches may be more of a performance artist than anything else, and she’s confrontational with her image and her ideas. What she’s confronting is vastly complex, but at the most obvious and basic level, her work deals with the images of women and women’s sexuality that we see in the media. It’s the ideal of the pliable, available, eternally open-mouthed sexy girl; and the idea that female sexuality is essentially passive and decorative, an ambiance, pink-hued, warm and moist, always and only there for men to sink themselves into. But here’s this homely broad with frizzy hair and serious Jew-face who likes to get naked and sing about fucking, and she sees sexuality as an imperative, an inward drive, an internalized and subjective experience, an aggressive force, something that men are only incidental to, something they may be on the receiving end of or they may not. This song – a cover of a minor hit by minor 80’s new wave band Berlin – takes a lot of pop song cliches about ‘making love forever’ and Peaches looks the camera dead in the eye when she delivers them. The original song is a duet: female vocalist promises that she is a virgin, a slut, a little girl, a blue moon and a dozen other things. The male vocalist declares that he is a man. Peaches declares that she is all of those things herself. That doesn’t make it a good song, honestly, but it does make it a good piece of performance art. It declares that sexuality itself is performance art; cliched roles may be discussed and subverted by artists and academics, but we still play them in the bedroom with no sense of irony.