How much are you obligated to love someone if they pay your rent? There is a famous short story – later adapted into a film – by Tama Janowitz titled Slaves of New York. It was initially published in, you guessed it, The New Yorker. The title is obviously, um, shall we say, not great, but in some ways it’s apropos and and becoming more so. New York City is hellishly expensive to live in, and people do degrading things to survive there. The point Janowitz was making in her story is that ambitious creative types are so in love with the idea of being New Yorkers that they compromise their integrity and wellbeing by staying yoked to lame partners just for the real estate. Yes, there’s plenty of people who stay in loveless marriages because the apartment. That’s sad, but it’s also…hello, hashtag first world problems! People – mostly the female kind – all over the world literally fucking end up dying because they don’t have the means to leave abusive partners, which is not the same as hanging on to a sexless marriage because rent-controlled Manhattan real estate yada yada. But the New York literary and creative scene is its own beast, one that exists in a paradoxical bubble. On one hand, New York City is so vibrant and diverse it’s almost like the capital of the world or something. On the other hand, the scenesters there can be shockingly ignorant and isolated (see, Lena “I don’t know any black people” Dunham.) Having maintenance-sex with somebody who doesn’t excite you like they used to because you share a lease is not actually equivalent to the institution of slavery, Tama Janowitz, and I’m likely not the first person to have pointed that out, but I think the point remains worth making. All of which has absolutely nothing to do with music, so you’re probably wondering. Yes, I’m drunk and I didn’t sleep very much last night. But also, this is exactly what this Pet Shop Boys song is about. The things we do for rent money, and that weird grey zone between sincere love between consenting adults and the kind of love animals have for you because you feed them. So, although my liberal-white-feminist-SJW self draws the line at slavery equivalence, the age-old phenomenon of being kept is a real social issue. A lot of people, mostly young and in some way disadvantaged, compromise their integrity and wellbeing by allowing themselves to be kept. Whether you’re married to someone who’s on salary while you’re on hourly, or just straight up cashing checks from a sugar-daddy, you’re being kept, and it’s a power imbalance and consent-wise a slippery slope.
Who remembers this song? You may have slow danced to it at your prom, if you were still in high school in the late 80’s, or you may have seen the dance floor grind to a halt when someone requested it at 80’s Nite. Either way, it’s kind of the nadir of 80’s one hit wonders. When In Rome were barely a band back when they were a band, and now the most interesting thing about them is that all three former members are embroiled in lawsuits and counter- lawsuits over who has legal ownership of their name. Because if you had a hit record for a few weeks in 1987, you need every recourse to continue making money from it decades later. In short, it’s a terrible song from a terrible band and you’d never imagine that it could be anything but a terrible footnote in the history of terrible music. Enter Sturgill Simpson. Who is this man with a golden voice who takes a nugget of pure dreck and finds the heartfelt ballad inside? Simpson named his breakout album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, and that itself is a good introduction to the artist. The idea is that the country music is neither dead nor hostage to flag-waving imbeciles; in the hands of a master, it’s alive and as relevant as anything else out there and it can support whatever ideas you want it to, be it the joy of psychedelic drugs or the joy of mining good songs out of bad production.
Do you sometimes find yourself wishing your life was more like a Tom Waits song? I do. My life needs more sad romance and trains. I would hop on a train when my romances got too sad and start over a few towns down the line.Tom Waits exists as the antidote to the vanguard of successful sexy people who mock your failures and exploit your inadequacies. In Tom Waits’ world, you’re not just a trashy drunk old woman down at the bar; you’re a sad luck dame, and you have a story to tell. In Tom Waits’ world, ugly old used up things have more value. Because ugly things have better stories than clean new shiny ones. Yeah, all that’s missing from my life is a Victrola, a kerosene lamp, and a mattress stuffed with horsehair.
Morrissey himself can’t play this song with a straight face anymore, but if the singer has outgrown his own youthful angst, the sentiment lives on none the less. And frankly, the sensation that the one thing that you really, really, really want is always and forever out of reach may not ever entirely go away. Sure, the world is full of people who know of no reality beyond their own entitlement; they must have happy lives, the same way that some of the less-sentient animals must have happy lives. For the rest of us, there’s the nagging and pervasive sensation that personal satisfaction lies behind a door marked No Admittance. And while lack of access to material indulgences is fairly easy to salve away through zen mindfulness or some other philosophical contortion, the disinterest and rejection we face in the interpersonal realm is wounding. Again and again we bump up against the saddening reality that our feelings count for nothing, and no matter how passionately we may feel, the feelings of others remain untouchable, incomprehensible, completely and utterly beyond influence. So we mope. We mope and we cry and we shake a wan fist at the world. Then we mope some more.
What a lovely vision of domestic bliss, and, even more romantically, sky high city living. Whatever images the word penthouse gives you – be it raunchy porn or top dollar real estate – that is not this song. This being Marianne Faithfull, the grande dame of all things bohemian, what I picture is of course a garret of a kind that Manhattan doesn’t offer anymore. It’s a walk-up in a war-era brownstone, nothing like a playground of the rich. This being Marianne Faithfull, there’s probably cartons of cigarettes, unfinished paintings, a syringe or two in the kitchen sink. It’s a vision of love and squalor. Catnip for those of us who, as with every generation, believes that the previous generation’s artists were better for having had a more authentic squalor, and hence more authentic love, unshmeered by gentrification, hipsters and dilettantes. A fallacy, of course; today’s icon was yesterday’s dilettante. Still, the fantasy persists that bygone squalid rooms and broken hearts were somehow better.
“Could life ever be sane again?” Morrissey asked himself in 1986. In the wake of the Chernobyl meltdown and the blasted DJ’s insensitivity to it, it was a fair enough question. The world looked pretty bleak back then, and candy bubble pop stars just made the bleakness look worse. Morrissey set out to speak for all the mopes who saw the fuchsia and chartreuse of pop culture as a vapid distraction from the sorrow of reality. He succeeded and still does, and has lived to see his aesthetic cycle in and out of favor several times over. His miserabalism has outlived the rise and fall of grunge and emo, and The Smiths remain no less relevant. You can acknowledge that the world may well be whimpering its last, and yet you still go on living on the slim hope of romance or creative redemption.
Is there an evocation of myth to be found in those moments spent lying awake in a darkened room? Some line to be drawn from your own disoriented eyes to the forces that drive humanity? You feel very existential alone in the dark. You muse about your place in the world, the insignificance of it. You wonder if that shadow in the corner was there before. Suzanne Vega captures those feelings with grace. The intersection of the ordinary and sublime can lie anywhere and it’s the artist’s job to point that out. This is one such intersection.