Pop culture treasure, high culture trash.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Anatomy of a pop song - or - When Jonathan Demme thinks like a riot grrrl

Most mainstream films and music videos don't do a very good job of demystifying the artistic process. Kidman-as-Woolf, Winslet-as-Murdoch and Paltrow-as-Plath brood attractively behind their writing desks, and Hayek-as-Kahlo glowers behind her faux unibrow, but nowhere do you get a fog-free tour of the thoroughly unglamorous business that is sitting in one place for six hours and making a painting, or a poem, or a song. This is partly a matter of aesthetics (Hayek throwing tantrums is more filmable than Hayek staring at a canvas) and partly a result of a cultural tendency to mythologize and deify artists.

Jonathan Demme's 1985 video for "The Perfect Kiss," New Order's nine-minute Ian Curtis eulogy, didn't buy in. It's fiercely, radically populist simply by virtue of being so instructional--like the new wave video equivalent of the Free to Fight LP, or Bikini Kill #2. There is no mystery here, no distance between art and artist and audience, no capitulation to the myth of the inscrutable genius pop band--just fingers on keys, hands on knobs, guitar picks in mouths.

There's also something distinctly RG about Demme's agenda. "Look, boys and grrrls," his camera says. "You can do this, too. There is nothing superhuman about these people. Yes, they are New Order, but they are also just some blokes and a lady making music in a room. That's all you need--a room, an idea, and some stuff to make it with. See this riff Peter Hook's playing here? He's barely using more than one string. And this other keyboard part over here? It's just three notes. Hear that rad explosion/croaking frog sound? You can make it with some synth drums/a special setting on yr Casio. You and yr friends can all play lots of different instruments and bang on cowbells in between verses. You can do this."

Cf. this scene from Gus Van Sant's Last Days, in which Mikey Pitt as Un-Kurt Not-Cobain improvises a song. He crawls around, turning on amps; he plays some guitar parts, loops them, screams into a microphone, loops that, then plays a second guitar part and finally a drum kit. A song blooms in front of our eyes and ears, and if it's not exactly "Be My Baby" (OR "Teen Age Riot"), it's okay, because the beauty is in the transparency of the performance process, not the final product.


Anonymous said...
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Lizzie said...
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emmy hennings said...

deleted scene in Last Days?

that scene was in the movie when I saw it at the cinema. a great scene.

I agree with you re: Demme's demystifying of New Order, but don't forget the little nod he paid in that film clip to the idea of artistic deification/genius with the 'ghost' of Ian Curtis leaning against the studio door in the background of one sequence.

stormy_brow said...
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stormy_brow said...

Apropos of nothing:

Purely by kind of accident, I ended up seeing freaking Tobi Vail!!! play in a band called "The Old Haunts" Thursday night. One of our schoolmates was in a band that opened up for them. I wanted to get all fan-grrrly and say something to Tobi (and she is a freaking awesome drummer, I tell you), but I didn't know what to say without sounding like an idiot.