Twerking, Appropriation, and Mastodon’s Utopian Vision

First, just watch it:

 

 

What are we to make of this? Is it cheap exploitation? Shock tactics? A desperate stab at relevance by an aging metal band on the precipice of becoming dad-rock?

Mastodon’s video is another entry in the cultural discourse on twerking, albeit from an unlikely source, since the hard rock/heavy metal subculture is notorious for it’s hostility to anything considered popular or “mainstream”. Where does this video fit into the conversation? Is it just a continuation of the sordid tradition of white appropriation of black tropes, or is it contributing something new? or at the very least, something a tinge less problematic?

Here it is necessary to consider a couple of other touchstones in our ongoing fascination with twerking, starting in the negative: Miley Cyrus.

 

The “We Can’t Stop” video marked the arrival of the “new” Miley, a complete shedding of the Hannah Montana personality, and her attempt at edginess or relevance or whatever. To accomplish this, she used black bodies as set dressing to giver her video a little edge and bolster her newfound “adult” sexuality. While Miley has vehemently denied her use of black bodies as damaging, invoking the timeless “I have black friends/I don’t see race” defense, sociologist Tressie McMilllan Cottom explains in heartbreaking detail how Cyrus’ appropriation does nothing to question or curb the deep-seated, racist belief that black bodies are always available to be used however white people see fit.

Miley Cyrus has faced no small amount of criticism for this “aesthetic” choice, and for a time had seemed to back off on it. Then #assgate.

 

Now the positive:

 

 

Rihanna’s video is overtly sexual. Rihanna is overtly sexual. The “Pour it Up” video feels exploitative at first glance, but under careful scrutiny, it can read as empowering rather than objectifying. In an illuminating discussion, Susan Shepard, Ayesha Siddiqi and Sarah Prickett highlight how the video showcases twerking on its own merits, and from a position of female power. On an aesthetic level, the cinematography implies no male gaze; these are female bodies moving for themselves, for other women. The lyrics speak of woman getting her money in spite of male pleasure rather than because of it.

 

In what category does Mastodon fall?

The “Motherload” video itself has a healthy sense of humor. It begins with the staid metal tropes of pseudo-occultic imagery, but turns into a hip-hop video almost without warning, completely disposing of/declaring meaningless those first images. From there, Mastodon’s showcasing of twerking itself is pretty interesting. While there is a slight implication of male gaze/pleasure, the video’s second half is more akin to “Pour it Up” than “We Can’t Stop”. The women are showcased for their own physical feats. There are no reaction shots; Mastodon merely provides the soundtrack to the proceedings. And though the video hints at a competition, it doesn’t end with a winner, but a celebration of all. The women enjoy each other’s performances, and Mastodon continues to rock out for them. Everybody has a place in Mastodon’s little world; space to enjoy, to act, to celebrate.

Certainly, Mastodon have not sewn up the issue, and four old white guys certainly shouldn’t have the last word, but their video is an intriguing, positive and almost life-affirming entry into the discussion.

 

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Lady Ahab and a Pack of Mutant Chimps: Post-“War on Terror” Cinema

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Zero Dark Thirty was the diagnosis.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the cure.

 

In the years since 9/11/01, a date that threatens to re-center history, dethroning the birth of Christ Himself as the defining event of all Western civilization, we have continued telling stories. Stories to soothe ourselves, to make sense of what happened, to reckon with the dawning of a new century, one that could not be described as “American”.

After tragedy, we cling to the oldest stories, the simplest stories. Good/evil/white/black, neat divisions, no bullshit. These stories comfort and console, provide sense where there is none. They can do good, in a holistic sense, but the potential benefits have an expiration date.

The decade and a half since the towers fell has certainly seen no shortage of cultural production that wrestles with the complexity of the War on Terror, but those early-day questions and critiques have bled inwards from the fringe. Even popcorn flicks are willing to deal with these themes.

 

 

Kathryn Bigelow tried to sell Zero Dark Thirty as objective and historical, if not in some sense universal. The Hurt Locker won best picture because of this, and we all expected the same result on round two. Zero Dark Thirty was not as easily accepted. It got some critical acclaim, modest box office, a few nominations, but mostly a pissing match between the Left and Right over matters of historical record and political disposition. Did it accurately reflect the events it described? Whose ideology animated it? The Left dismissed it as an apology for latter day American Imperialism, the Right whinged about historical/factual inaccuracy.

For such an explicitly political film, no place of rest was prepared on either end of the spectrum. Almost 2 years on, it seems to be mostly forgotten; another prestige war picture thrown to the dustbin after its moment. But it haunts.

Bigelow’s film doesn’t function as intended; a little too dark and biting to simply be the docudrama its creators seemed to intend, that the public possibly wanted. What it is: a wannabe postmortem for the War on Terror. Maya is the new Marlowe/Willard; her river made of scraps of data divulged under duress, surveillance tapes, rumors. She pursues our new, alien Kurtz with the singular conviction of Ahab rather than Willard’s initially detached, soldierly professionalism or Marlowe’s haunted witness. Bin Laden is the answer; kill him, the question is settled, the bloodlust slaked. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t indulge in the expected triumphalism of a job well done, an enemy slain. The path of the film is labyrinthine, and Maya’s journey indirect.  The Great Satan is killed without fanfare in the night, prey of demonic specters that fill the women and children with terror. Maya sees his mutilated face. It does not bring her friends back, or grant them peace. There is only uncertainty, if not fear, for the future.

What should have been the closing chapter to the Great American Misadventure of the 21st century is left open. Absolute vengeance did not stem the consequences of the actions that led to it. The forces set in motion by American bloodlust birthed innumerable terrors, and sowed chaos over the Middle East for the foreseeable future. Maya’s tears of anguish in the film’s final frame are for us, for them.

 

And what does an emergent civilization of genetically enhanced apes have to do with recent American history?

 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes makes war its central theme. Its hypothetical universe sees apes ascendant in the wake of humanity’s fall. One civilization tries to build something new, the other to restore past glory. Inevitably, the deep traumas suffered by either side foment into open conflict. The efforts of the peacekeepers, the dreamers, undermined by deep hurt and hatred. As the ape Caesar said, “Apes started war. Humans will not forgive.”

Dawn ends in uncertainty, akin to Zero Dark Thirty, but with a recognition of what it takes to heal. The fledgling ape civilization, led astray by the scarred and hateful Koba’s own bloodlust, bows before their founder, the risen Caesar, uniformly displaying their open palms: a gesture of supplication, a request for forgiveness, an admission of complicity. The apes display a collective guilt and lament that the modern nation-state cannot hope to match, that leaders of men spurn, view as weakness.

Zero Dark Thirty was the diagnosis.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the cure.

 

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Death to the moderates

Idiot Joy Showland

I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.
Sigmund Freud, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life

They live among us, the moderates, if what they have can be called life. You’ve probably seen them, strolling on the streets and driving in their cars and looking every bit like the human beings they aren’t; maybe you happen to be one yourself. There are (but why?) people who will go out in the evening and drink exactly one half of a bottle of wine; people who think the new Simpsons episodes are still pretty funny; people who can look at the sheer swirling insanity that surrounds us, the artificial famines and the drowning refugees and the suffocating alienation, and declare themselves to be moderate

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Weighing In on Arcade Fire’s “We Exist”

Today, as I’m sure some are already aware, Arcade Fire released the music video for “We Exist,” the third single off of their acclaimed fourth studio album, Reflektor. While the song’s lyrics follow the difficult conversation between a gay man and his straight father, to whom his son pleads for recognition rather than the isolation he has faced from others, the video tracks a different story, but one with similar themes of identity and social rejection nonetheless.

It begins with the main character, played by Andrew Garfield of the rebooted Spiderman franchise, sullenly staring at the reflected image of their own naked torso. The chattering of chickens wafts through an open window but is quickly blended with the buzz of an electric razor guided over the head of and by the melancholy protagonist. Music bursts in with a punch as they* reach for and then throw aside a red top after trying it on over a black bra.  A series of different shirts are cycled through until a peach button-up, tied at the waist, is selected and paired with a blonde, crimped wig.

The camera flashes to them walking past a corn field on the edge of a small town, hands nervously fidgeting and eyes oscillating from looking down at the ground to straight ahead. This gaze is held as they walk into a bar, walls lined with neon signs and beer advertisements, and draw the attention of the other patrons just by entering. While sipping a drink and longingly watching** a couple dance on the otherwise empty dance floor, the main character is approached by man who pulls them up to dance, despite their obvious hesitancy. It isn’t long before a group of other men, friends of the first, swarm the dancing couple. A strobe light splices the scene as Garfield’s character is groped, harassed, and thrown to the floor.

It seems as though things will only continue to escalate until the protagonist, in a moment of triumph, bursts forward, a single spotlight illuminating their actions. They move about the dance floor freely, joined by four bearded men in jean shorts and flannels tied in a fashion that mirrors the character’s top. Are they guardian angels? Are they an up-and-coming new dance act that’s slowly sweeping the midwest dive bar scene? It’s unclear, as is whether or not the rest of the video is a fantasy or a trip to an alternative dimension, but their affect is overtly positive as they dance along and eventually reveal a portal to an Arcade Fire concert. Garfield, now wearing a beautiful white dress, approaches the stage slowly but soon, finding comfort among the band, stands on a speaker and faces the audience, making commanding poses that radiate a new confidence.

The whole video is both inspiring and striking in a lot of ways, particularly the exhilarating second-half of the six-minute piece. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a tear or two resting in the lower lids of my eyes as I watched Garfield’s character leap and twirl in the spotlight, first at the bar but then on stage at real-life Coachella. Their open form relates a sense of freedom, both from the negativity of others but also to flourish in self-acceptance as well as the acceptance of others.

However, thoughts began to cross my mind as I finished watching it for the umph-teenth time. Andrew Garfield, as far as I know, isn’t gay and doesn’t experience gender dysphoria, despite his noteworthy performance. Is anything, perhaps, loss because of this?

It’s a question that’s been asked before, but is clearly still relevant, especially considering story lines involving lgbt characters are growing in acceptance by mainstream culture in the form of movies, tv shows, commercials, and music videos. Is is okay for straight actors to hold gay roles? Is it okay for gay actresses to hold straight roles? What about cis actors and actresses and transgender roles? The answers are unclear. Blue is the Warmest Color, for example, received criticism from some for its heterosexual director and leading actresses, while others praised it as an honest portrayal of the struggles attached to coming of age, figuring out one’s sexuality, and the ups and downs of a lesbian relationship. Hillary Swank, however, acquired almost nothing but commendation for her performance of Brandon Teena in 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry. One major critic, however, is Brandon’s former girlfriend who thought the film was a misrepresentation of the true story.

A lot is left for discussion, especially about the purpose of acting, the role of story and art-making in truth-telling, and the liberties given to artists and storytellers. What I’m wondering is if maybe its time for not just the marginalized voices to be made welcome in society/culture, but for the people to whom the voices belong, to be given a space to represent themselves. That is why I think a character like Laverne Cox’s Sophia Burset from Orange is the New Black, has a certain additional quality that Andrew Garfield’s is missing, despite the excellent performance. Because, again, for a song and video that is about visibility and acknowledgment of existence, why not have an existing transgendered actor or actress play the lead role?

*I refrain from using he/she pronouns as the gender identity of the character has been left unknown though some articles have identified the character as a transgender woman

**There’s a lot of references to vision and looking in this synopsis. This makes sense though, right?, considering the song is about seeing and being seen.

Pretty White Women Save the World

It’s hard to criticize International Justice Mission. One’s character comes into question when shitting on anything that stands vehemently opposed to human trafficking, freeing the exploited and seeking justice against the bad men who exploit them.

But they’re doing it wrong.

Thanks to Stuff Christian Culture Likes, this came to light. It appears IJM has teamed up with some sort of clothing company to swarm Rwanda with attractive, mostly white female “storytellers” to end sadness by promoting ethical consumerism. And *you* can be part of the team by writing an essay and hounding your friends into clicking on a picture of your face a bunch of times. An exercise in abject narcissism to earn the privilege of serving others.

The fucking audacity.

Everything stated in that contest is more or less IJM’s core mission. Train former prostitutes to perform menial labor, teach westerners to spend some of their extra income on their trinkets. Teletubbie capitalism, positively heartwarming.

No doubt IJM has gotten some people out of truly abhorrent conditions, but what they stress as “economic opportunity” shines a different shade of exploitation. Out of the brothel and into the sweatshop, at least they’re not fucking for money anymore.

This focus on the awful spectacle of shame and degradation in the Third World brothel saps the attention from everything else. Do we really care about the women and girls after they’re carried out of the whore house by police in riot gear? Or does that sole image contain the salve for our collective guilt, a cinematic instant that is really more about we Western observers than the bodily and emotional wellbeing of the woman weeping into the arms of a kevlar-clad cop? Do these women become anything more to us than pawns in our own egotistical currents of guilt and absolution?

I have no doubt that IJM’s intentions are pure, but they’re slapping a band-aid on a cancer patient.

 

Misnomer Pt 2: Pain and its Uses

Arms scarred from self-harm, they couldn’t find a vein. They injected the poisons and sedatives into his balls. The sedatives didn’t take. He feels his own dying. The doctor calls it off. A massive heart attack finishes it.

Clayton Lockett’s sentence was carried out. And the authorities that handed it down call it “botched”.

The fact that he felt pain seems to be the only thing that renders this obscene in the eyes of the law, and at at that, only pain in the course of death.

The law, specifically the law of the United States, seems to have very few qualms with having pain inflicted upon bodies at its behest, be they the bodies of Occupy protesters doused in pepper spray and beaten with clubs by police, or the bodies of (usually ethnic Arab) detainees deprived of sleep and forced into stress positions by US soldiers. Pain in these situations is perceived as temporary and utilitarian. Because the subject of the pain is alive at the end of the process, the law seems to view these methods as legitimate ways of the state accomplishing its goals, being the “maintenance” of “public property” and “intelligence gathering” respectively.

There has been no widespread outcry over the abuses of either Guantanamo detainees or protesters.

The true obscenity of Clayton Lockett’s suffering and death is that it’s not really out of the ordinary. Ultimately, the state seems willing to forego it’s well earned “mission accomplished” because Clayton Lockett’s pain was, to borrow a phrase, MALIGNANTLY USELESS. Which is to say, there is no rhetorical avenue by which his pain could be construed as “useful”. In the above cases, the state disavows the pain of the detainee and the protester as the means to or regrettable byproduct of “security”. In these cases, the state can gloss over acts of cruelty done on its behalf as necessary to the common good, it can posit a world where wailing and gnashing of teeth are not MALIGNANTLY USELESS.

The literary critic Elaine Scarry devotes the entire first half of her monumental study The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World  to the intersections of politics and pain, specifically in the phenomena of torture and war. For Scarry, pain, being one of the things most immediately perceived by consciousness, constitutes the highest order of reality. It is unmediated, pure sensation. It overwhelms consciousness, destroying language, reducing even the most verbose of us to the pre-lingual cries of infancy. Pain being the most real, association with pain confers reality.

In the torture chamber, the professed goal may be the gathering of information, but what is accomplished is the making-real of the state’s power. Torture is the use of pain to deprive the individual of their own voice, replacing it with the state’s.

On the battlefield, state power is made real on the twisted and burned corpses of the young, brave, and foolish; the baby-faced kid from Omaha, torn asunder, crying for mother.

If one thing was clear to Clayton Lockett in his final moments, it was the existence of the authority of the State of Oklahoma.

The state has admitted that Clayton Lockett’s suffering was not worth a single damn. Will they ever say the same for anyone else they inflict on a daily basis?