STORIES TO TELL
The Knife’s music video for “A Tooth For An Eye” has some interesting similarities to Grimes’ “Oblivion.” I don’t mean to imply any direct influence. The same social conditions often produce similar lines of thought, and it doesn’t really matter whether Olof Dreijer and Karin Dreijer Andersson, the Swedish siblings who make up The Knife, have seen Grimes’ work or not.
As the video opens, we are in a locker room. The men walking in know each other and exchange greetings as they strip down to their workout gear. This is an athletic group of guys with well-toned bodies; they range in age from their twenties up to one venerable gent who’s fairly long in the tooth. They enter the gym through a door clearly labeled “Herrar”—Men—and find, to our surprise if not to theirs, that a young girl is in charge of their class. Her striped sweatsuit makes it impossible to pinpoint her age, but she could be as young as twelve. She immediately begins directing them in a series of supple movements that would be more appropriate for girls her age than for this collection of mature males. They do their best to follow her.
The Knife is an overtly political group and, to make sure that we get it, have explained their video on their website. This is part of what they had to say: “In a sport setting where one would traditionally consider a group of men as powerful and in charge, an unexpected leader emerges. A child enters and allows the men to let go of their hierarchies, machismo and fear of intimacy, as they follow her into a dance.”
Karin Dreijer Andersson’s voice, grotesquely distorted, comes blasting out of the girl’s mouth: “I’m telling you stories. Trust me.” What stories is the girl telling us?
COOL AND RIGHT
With “The Love Club,” New Zealand’s Lorde has written a near perfect pop tune about a girl’s adolescence. “I’m in a clique but I want out,” the narrator of her song tells us. “My mother’s love is choking me. I’m sick of words that hang above my head: ‘What about the kid?’ It’s time the kid got free.”
The way out is to join the love club, and then “everything will glow for you,” and that’s exactly what happens—until the devastating turn near the end: “The only problem that I got with the club— is how you’re severed from the people who watched you grow up.”
But if you “go on your great adventure again, they will be waiting at the end.” Yes, we will—as one generation reconnects with another.
Lorde is just on the edge of blazing into huge international superstardom—and she must know it. “lately i’ve been waking up at 4 or 5 a.m.,” she tells us on her Tumblr blog, “turning things over in my head. so much to think about, so much to break down and process and decide. i’m only at the beginning, but it has always been important to me that everything feels cool, feels right.”
She says that her song, “Royals,” means “a hell of a lot” to her, and that’s why she made the video the way she did. “a lot of people think teenagers live in this world like ‘skins’ every weekend or whatever, but truth is, half the time we aren’t doing anything cooler than playing with lighters, or waiting at some shitty stop. that’s why this had to be real. and i’m at that particular train station every week. those boys are my friends. callum’s wearing a sweater that used to belong to me. so it all feels right, and i can sleep.”
It is cool. It is right.
NOT A QUESTION
According to her wiki entry, Karen Marie Ørsted’s stage name—Mø—means “maiden” or “virgin” in Danish. For her first live television appearance, she wears a costume so understated it resembles a student actor’s black-and-grey “neutrals,” directing all of our attention where it should be—on her dancing. In this song, “Pilgrim,” her dancing is not about sex, it’s about revelation. She’s working with ancient images.
Oh, what a world I was born into.
Warriors are lying down.
Hush little head, you’ll get sick
so sorrow filled I am.
Old wise river take me to the sea,
Like pilgrims on the Camino
I go, I go.
The story she’s telling us resembles Saint Joan’s. When “warriors are lying down,” and “babies are on the throne,” the virgin maid must come forth and act. Is Mø a warrior saint? It’s too soon to tell, but she’s in motion—a pilgrim on the big road that’s always been there, el Camino. She seeks the sea—the great pool of humanity—and she’s taken there by the river, its power flowing through her on a driving post-Dub beat punctuated with horns samples.
Her dance is a prayer, an invocation, a ritual. We could almost believe that if she were to dance before the walls of the fortified city, she might be able to bring them tumbling down. As it always does to fledgling saints, the Tempter whispers to her, telling her to “let go and go and… fuck it up,” and she has to constantly remind herself to stay single-pointed, to “get a hold of it.” What is revealed?
Why do you and I live on and on?
I believe it’s not a question anymore.
WE MAY BE KIDS
In the fall of 2012, Canada’s young singer-songwriter, lowell, teamed up with the Scandinavian “supergroup” Apparatjik to release an EP, If You Can, Solve This Jumble. “I want to start some sort of movement,” lowell tells the Toronto Standard’s Sheena Lyonnais. “I want to encourage girls to feel powerful and speak out.” The anthemic “Shake Him Off” is a good start.
lowell’s music videos have a homemade DIY quality—images are framed so that we can never forget that they’re old-school film; they flicker as though projected onto a curtain in somebody’s living room forty years ago. As “Kids” opens with “Don’t let me get away. Can’t you see my face?” we do see lowell’s face, but chopped in half, and immediately there’s a weird disconnect between the words and music. “Tell me that you want it,” lowell is singing, “tell me that you need it, and let me do you right,” but the sound we’re hearing is not the least bit seductive. It’s the rat-a-tat of a snare drum hammering out the beat of a marching tune.
We can make out the shadowy image of what appears to be an Asian drum ensemble, and then lowell herself appears, banging away on a drum. She looks like a parody of the little drummer boy in the iconic American image, The Spirit of ’76. Suddenly there’s a shot of—oh my God, it really is—Richard Milhous Nixon, the President of the United States, his face warped but recognizable. Before we can be quite sure we’ve seen him, lowell as the little drummer girl replaces him in the Oval Office—but a moment later he’s back, making one of those wretched TV speeches I remember so vividly.
“We might just be kids,” lowell sings, “but we still know how to love,” and we see the kids. They’re in old film clips, and they’re my generation. An ecstatic young woman dancing, a couple wrapped in a blanket, a man carrying his little daughter on his shoulders—they could be at any of our protests or marches or sit-ins. Drawn hearts shower down on Nixon, and lowell has taken me back to that lost time.
lowell is singing, “Let me do you right,” but we know now that she’s not offering anything as trivial as mere sex—she’s offering love. As the video ends, Nixon gets the last word. The screen goes dark, and for the first time his voice rises up into intelligibility: “The war was causing deep divisions.” That line dates the speech—November 3, 1969.
Did we know how to love? We thought we did. One of our gurus, Gary Snyder, suggested that much of the hostility toward us was caused by our “nutty insistence on love.” For me, that magical time of love and infinite possibility lasted for little over a year. We could recognize each other at a glance. We could walk into any of the spaces we claimed—an occupied building, the Boston Commons, the streets of Washington when 500, 000 of us came to protest that speech of Nixon’s—and everyone we saw really was a brother or a sister. The impact of an experience like that is hard to define, but it transforms you at a deep level. I take all of this personally. Thank you, lowell, for remembering the best of us.
We also need to remember the worst of us. Hugely powerful social forces were arrayed against us, but we contributed to our own destruction—with the idolization of drugs, with bitterly divisive political squabbles. Women got tired of being “chicks” and moved on. We helped to end the war, but we had wanted far more than that. Love has become a memory.
LET US NOT TALK FALSELY NOW
As The Hundred in the Hands has told us, our times could well be the End Times. All over the planet people are slaughtering each other with maniacal ferocity. Staggering inequalities of wealth have created a huge underclass of hopeless young people with no future. If global warming continues unchecked, we will experience a massive die-off of the human species. In the virgin maid’s story, the warriors are lying down and babies are on the throne—rulers who are slaves to their own infantile desires. Like Metric’s Emily Haines, we are all filled with sorrow as the dying or dead confront us in our dreams.
What is required now is a new vision, one that’s total, one that transforms our lives. The way to that vision is through myths and texts, stories and songs. But it’s easy to get lost in the hall of mirrors, to find that your words and gestures have been turned into spectacle. Grimes has told us that we can’t compromise our morals in order to make a living. Lorde has told us that everything has to feel cool, feel right.
Writing in the golden age of my generation, Gary Snyder told us that we are living under “a fantastic system of stimulation of greed that cannot be fulfilled, sexual desire that cannot be satiated, and hatred that has no other outlet except against oneself, the persons one is supposed to love, or the revolutionary aspirations of pitiful, poverty-stricken marginal societies,” that we are dominated by a social order that needs to turn us all into “preta—hungry ghosts, with giant appetites and throats no bigger than needles.”
But what if we could do what lowell is inviting us to do? What if we loved everything we are supposed to love? That would mean that a woman would not have to ask to be treated as an equal, and as a human being, because all of us, no matter who we are, would be human beings worthy of respect. That would mean that boys and men would overcome their greed and fear and lose their need to be cruel and violent. That would mean that it would be as unthinkable to rape someone as it would be to torture a prisoner. That would mean that we could work together to make things better instead of worse, that all of us could walk around at night without fear, that girls would constitute a revolutionary soul force that would change the world for real. But that’s impossible, right? Just a utopian dream.
Utopia is the only choice we’ve got.