‘Fancy’? As IF!

iggyIggy Azalea is all over the place these days, whether she’s collaborating with the biggest divas in the business like J-Lo and up and comer Ariana Grande, or being raked across the coals for her ‘appropriation’ of hip-hop, a traditionally black space. To be fair, she’s not the only white person who’s done this, but since she’s among the most successful, it’s only expected that she take some flak for it.

The song that really put her on the map is her collaboration with Charli XCX, ‘Fancy’. Here’s my take on it and its video, which is a rather obvious homage to the teen cult movie, ‘Clueless’.

What’s so Fancy?: ‘Clueless’ is based not too loosely on Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’, with Cher (Alicia Silverstone) trying her best to make Tai (Brittany Murphy) a more presentable, acceptable girl in her high school clique. Paul Rudd plays a rather incestuous Mr. Knightley figure, intermittently warning her of the dangers of her superficial,teenybopper lifestyle. At the close, she realizes there’s more to life than ‘fancifying’ other people, and grows up enough to kiss her step-brother.

clueless Iggy dresses like Cher, wearing the iconic yellow plaid skirt and blazer that Cher debuts in the first few scenes of the movie. The video opens with her putting this outfit together on her Ipad, a contemporization of the PC Cher uses to do the same. Many of the other scenes in the video, including the crazy drive, the physical ed class and the debate are also riffs on the movie. iggy az

The role reversal: It’s kind of cool to see that Iggy, who sings the more ‘ghetto’, gritty part of the song (saying things like ‘want a bad bitch like this’) is the uptight, ultra-rich Cher, while Charli XCX is the more clueless Tai, who constantly sings about how ‘fancy’ she is. This does however make a certain kind of sense, since Iggy is the one who prescribes and dictates, while Charli simply sings the same refrain. Also, rap does tend to sound more assertive than pop tunes.

Royal satire: ‘Better get my money on time, if they no money, decline’ Iggy says—money is all in the lifestyle she and her friends lead. How else are they going to trash hotels and get drunk on the mini-bar? Sound familiar? It reminded me irresistably of Lorde’s ‘Royals’, only she sings about how ‘trashin’ the hotel room’ isn’t for her set. Where Lorde soulfully upholds the dignity of her small town dreams, Iggy brashly satirizes the set that can afford to get drunk on the minibar. They’re singing about the same things, only using different registers to do it.

iggy-azalea-charli-xcx-fancy-clueless-600x337 Cultural appropriation: Yep, this is something we hear a lot about, and Iggy’s definitely high on the hit list of those who appoint themselves poltically correct watchdogs. I have quibbles with this—it seems to me that the moment you start policing what people do or do not have a right to incorporate into their work, you open the floodgates to all sorts of censoring and boundary making. As long as it’s done respectfully enough, with no intent to slander or mock the culture it’s being borrowed from, should we really worry about it?

But I guess we then get into murky waters of what constitutes ‘respectful’ use, and that’s not somewhere I want to go.

To be fair, I don’t think Iggy’s use of the hip hop genre in this song is meant to signal some sort of stealing away from its ‘rightful’ utilisers. I think she just used what suggested itself to her in order to satirize a way of life/class of people – the point of the song being that satire rather than laying an exclusive claim to a kind of music.

Conclusion: ‘Fancy’, ultimately, is a satire. There’s no way anyone can take Iggy’s claims of being ‘the realest’ girl seriously; instead, we look on in mild amusement as she and Charli go over the top in their emulation of high school ‘cool girls’, Charli very obviously lip-syncing with her own lyrics. It’s a sort of prolonged parody of a film which already seeks to parody a certain group/ethos, and works thereby as a homage to it. After all, two negatives cancel each other out, don’t they?

as if!

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Tuneful Tuesday: ‘Bang Bang’

The song that was all the rage this summer is a strange one, a collaboration between three female artists that combines scale-defying vocals, hip hop and tough voiced street dancing. The styles of the three artists are markedly distinct, but feed into, ultimately, what seeks to be some sort of feminist/reclamation anthem that I’m not entirely sure hits its mark.

I’m assuming you know that the song is, of course, ‘Bang Bang’, by Ariana Grande, Jessie J and Nicki Minaj.

bang bang

Women Beware Women: The song starts off on the premise that ‘you’ the girls are addressing (one boy or several, we’re not sure) is not single. He is definitely interested in someone else, who has ‘a body like an hourglass’, and has ‘let’ him ‘hold her hand to school’. Jessie and Ariana insist that though this mysterious girl has all those perfect traits, they themselves will do much more for the boy in question, including ‘giving it to [him] all the time’. They assert themselves as sexually more potent and willing than this hourglass-figured silhouette. Remind you of ‘Dontcha’ by the Pussycat Dolls?

The Varied Settings: The three women start off in markedly different settings. Jessie dances on a New York street, at first only with other women, and then opens up the floor to a stream of enthusiasts, all of whom get caught up in the infectious rhythm. Ariana is arianaacting like a little diva in a bedroom, stretching luxuriously on her bed in between dabbing makeup on her face. Nicki struts around in super high heels on a skyscraper’s roof, a helicopter in the background. The women are evidently claiming the spaces—the streets, the bedroom, the epitome of professional success—for their own, in the absence of, or after pushing, the men out of it. These are their spaces, which they invite the men to afterwards.

Owning it: During Nicki’s rap, she names herself (‘Queen Nicki dominant’) as well as her fellow singers (‘It’s me, Jessie and Ari). She seems to warn off ill-wishers (‘if they test me they sorry’) or her costars, we’re not sure who given the phrasing of the song. The fact however that their names form part of the lyrics makes it clear just how much they are invested in and ‘back’ the song. The lyrics are aggressive, suggestive, dictating, in no nickiuncertain terms, what the mysterious ‘you’ wants—the singers seem to know that better than the person him/herself. And all three seem immensely confident about their own attractiveness and sexuality, including the nineteen year old Ariana, striking poses in public and/or private view with what looks like gleeful abandon. In the final image, pink light floods NYC, signaling a total ‘girl power’ takeover.

Conclusion

For all its assertion and seeming power, I don’t really think ‘Bang Bang’ is the gleeful anthem of women’s sexuality that it seeks to be. Sure it starts with a reneging of conventional beauty standards (the ‘hourglass body’ and ‘booty like a Cadillac’ are discounted), but these are thrown aside because the new women promise ‘it’ ‘all the time’. They are positing themselves as better alternatives based purely on the fact that they are,presumably, better and more willing in bed. No other reason.

finale

Second, the video, while it seems to showcase three very confident, attractive women, also privileges only a certain kind of female body: young, lithe and dressed in a manner that is, above all, sexually attractive. Ari, Jessie and Nicki wear short, scrappy dresses/outfits that hardly seem conducive to dancing very comfortably. Their stilettos, also hardly known for comfort, are focussed on in various shots, and (as Amy from the Big Bang Theory told us), women traditionally wore high heels in order to ‘make the breasts and the buttocks more prominent’. Again, catering to the male gaze. And of course we can’t forget how all three, Ariana especially, continue to look provocatively at the camera, drawing the viewers into a promised, or at least hinted at, liasion.

But here we go into complicated terrain: is owning and declaring sexual intent not a feminist, powerful position? Or is it a way to gratify and seek male attention? Is it still objectification if the person doing the objectifying is you? If Queen Nicki chooses to talk about how she can ‘let [him] have it’, is she acting powerful or just catering to some male fantasy?

Big questions, and probably much more than the singers themselves ever thought to raise. Ah well, we can’t deny that it’s a catchy song and that, despite the ridiculousness of its lyrics, it is quite fun to listen to.

Tuneful Tuesday: ‘Animals’

Last week I looked at ‘feminist’ Taylor Swift; this week I’m going to analyse what is perhaps one of the most sexist, disturbing, rape-culture espousing songs to hit the radio in the last few months. I’m talking about Maroon 5’s ‘Animals’, of course.

maroon 5

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t hate Maroon 5. They’ve put out some very catchy songs, with totally (unintentionally) hilarious lyrics. If you’re feeling down about something, just throw on ‘Payphone’ and laugh at the sheer angst that’s captured in those verses. Or listen to ‘Moves Like Jagger’ and try to figure out what Christina Aguilera’s ‘secret’ is. But this song, well, I think Adam Levine is either very stupid and doesn’t get what his words and his video seem to say, or, the much more likely option, he knows, but he just doesn’t give a sh*t.

The stalker trope: However you slice it, there’s no denying that the ‘I’ of the song, the man Levine portrays in the very graphic video, is an unwelcome stalker. He sees the girl stalkerfor a few minutes at a butcher shop (go figure) and seems to decide that he must have her. We see clips of him putting up hundreds of her photos, some of them cut up to display single body parts like one eye. He fantasises about making love to her, stands under her window (presumably) while she’s sleeping, and even dreams of curling up in bed next to her unknowing, sleeping body. He follows her into a club and taps her on the shoulder and does it again, even when she turns away pointedly. Levine’s character is also presented as the quintessential antisocial—we don’t see him actually interact with anyone in the video apart from the girl, and he seems to spend his time hanging out in and humping slaughterhouse-hung carcasses.

The ‘animal’ imagery: Yeah, yeah, pop stars mix up their metaphors all the time—just think of Katy Perry and her ‘dark horse’ song, the messy misuse of which metaphor earned her this parody—but Levine in this song exhorts his ‘prey’ to both ‘run free’ as well as find ‘another fish in the sea’. I’m still not sure there’s any animal out there that both runs as well as finds its mate in the sea.

But in all seriousness, Levine’s use of the animal as symbolic of something base and primeval is not without precedent. He’s totally espousing Tennyson’s ‘nature red in tooth and claw’. He’s also made it clear that he is at the top of the food chain, the predator in this ‘relationship’ who hunts down and eats alive his chosen meat. Just like ‘animals’, you know? Though maybe he operates more like an insect, some of whom are known to eat their mates after copulating with them.

The blood: At the end of the video, Levine and his victim bathe in a waterfall of blood, ala Carrie. Maybe this is an allusion to the infamous Stephen King story; maybe the proximity to blood and butchery is what gives Levine’s character the sort of uber-stalker powers that he displays. Maybe it’s what gives him the super sense of smell (he claims he can ‘smell’ the girl’s ‘scent for miles’) and  lets him know that the two will eventually become one.

creeep

Or, we can go old school and read the waterfall of blood as an allusion to the girl’s virginity, which Levine will violently wrest away tonight. After this she’ll be just another carcass for him, swinging from the hooks of his slaughterhouse. Ridden hard and put away wet, as Chuck Bass once said. Eesh.

The girl: So, what’s the girl’s take on all of this? We don’t know! She walked into a butcher shop, bought some meat, and seems largely unaware of the torrent of emotions she’s unleashed in this creepy man. According to the lyrics of the song, she has no choice in what Levine intends to perpetrate. She is ‘prey’, she is going to be ‘eaten alive’, she can’t ‘deny’ the ‘animal that comes alive’ when he’s inside her (ew). But what does the Animalsvideo tell me? She seems to have a happening enough life, going out with her friends and not looking like she’s the least bit interested in this desperate man. Her blasé brushing off of Levine’s groping hand in the club communicates that she is secure, powerful enough to push off his advances despite his creepy insistence. She goes about her own life, completely uncaring of his rabid fantasies. And who’s left standing out in the cold and rain? Him.

Conclusion:

Frankly, I don’t understand how anyone can listen to this song and not be the slightest bit disturbed. Then again, I think this is part of the inherent sexism of the entertainment industry: let’s all tear Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus apart, but let’s conveniently ignore the blatantly ‘rapey’ lyrics of ‘Animals’, shall we? Let’s ignore the fact that a man is claiming he wants to ‘prey’ on a woman, regardless of whether or not she wants to ‘run free’. Let’s just close our ears when he sings about how she can ‘pretend that it was [him] alone’ who made things happen—pretty much the go-to line of any guy claiming he didn’t ‘rape’ a non-consenting partner.

Last year, Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ got into a lot of trouble for its problematic music video and lyrics. I’m surprised Levine wasn’t pulled through the same ring of fire. My apologies, ‘sexiest man alive’, but any guy who sings about his need to ‘prey’ on me or another girl is automatically demoted in my estimation. I’m all for tough love, but baby, this ain’t it.

Tuneful Tuesday: I Knew You Were Trouble

So once a week I’m going to analyse a pop song, because I think it’s fun and might be a nice change from the heavy duty fantasy stuff. Also I think pop songs are the future of academic criticism, which has pretty much exhausted everything else. Presenting, example one: Taylor Swift’s ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’,

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNoKguSdy4Y

Taylor Swift’s relationship to feminism has long been suspect, like that of many popstars not named Beyonce. People have dissed her for being ‘conventional’ and ‘anti women’ because of her early song lyrics (pieces like ‘Ours’ and ‘Better than Revenge’ come to mind), and the fact that she’s a white, obviously attractive young woman makes her guilty of incredible privilege. I suppose the fact that she sings about love and heartbreak doesn’t help her either, in more than a few people’s eyes. Whatevs. I’ve loved her and continue to love her and unlike all those hipsters who are discovering her ‘feminist politics’ now, I rather think she’s been at it for a while.

I think Taylor’s first brush with ‘feminist’ lyrics and hitting back at the music industry began with ‘Red’ (2013), the album that signaled her shift from country to pop music. I’m going to analyse one of the songs in this collection, and interrogate its complicated politics.

I Knew You Were Trouble

There are four main points that jump out at me and complicate any reading of this song:

The Fairy Tale trope – Taylor opens with the classic line ‘Once upon a time’, immediately claiming a universal, fairy-tale like space. Her experience, or that of her protagonist, is one that should act as a cautionary fable for all those listening. By using the phrase and literary genre, Taylor also casts herself as a fairy tale character—most likely, based on the events of the song, a princess who’s lost her way. This is not new for her, since she famously used the trope in ‘Love Story’, her first big hit. love story

Taylor’s relationship to the fairy tale has changed considerably—from a naive, waiting–for-rescue princess in ‘Love Story’, she’s become one who narrates her past ‘mistakes’. She should have known this particular prince was ‘trouble’, she says, and not fallen into his arms. The next step in this journey has been taken in ‘Blank Space’, where she’s graduated to becoming the ultimate powerful woman of the fairy tale: the wicked witch.

The audience – Most pop songs are addressed to a generic ‘you’. If you’re a female pop artist, your audience is usually going to try and figure out who the ‘you’ is. This is particularly common with Taylor’s music, thanks to her very publicly-documented relationships with various celebrities. The first comment on many of her romantic songs (or break up songs) is ‘who is this about?’, and the good tabloid journalists (and music critics) will try to provide the answer.

taylor-swift-has-chosen-her-next-victimI’m not going to go into the sexism that’s inherent in this kind of reporting and reception (I’ll save that for some other time). Instead, we should turn our attention to how Taylor, in ‘I knew you were trouble’ shifts between addressing a specific ‘you’ and talking to a larger, general audience. She refers to a ‘he’ who is ‘long gone’, one who’s left her—the same ‘he’, presumably, who she should have known was ‘trouble’. This indicates that she’s already pulled out of her self absorption/heartache (at least in short bursts) to address the larger audience and make a cautionary fable out of her experience. This is pretty strong for a female pop artist, or any artist, who’s writing a break up song.

The ‘I’ factor – What really struck me about this song was how very driven it was by Taylor’s insistence on using ‘I’, on blaming herself for falling for this sham prince. In the voiceover that accompanies the music video, she says, ‘the worst part wasn’t even losing him; it was losing myself’. Taylor is claiming agency for her own mistake—while some may see this as a victim blaming herself for the misfortune that has befallen her, I prefer to see it the same way Taylor does, using it as an empowering experience that she will, in the trouble taylorfuture, avoid, and help her listeners avoid. ‘Shame on me’, she says, for hoping to be a princess again. That won’t be happening any more.

The music video – The video for the song (posted here) is downright disturbing. It opens on a blasted landscape, which we later figure out is the aftermath of a big concert where Taylor was cheated on by her boyfriend. Through the course of the song we realise that this boy came in with problems, possibly owed money to the wrong people, and gets roughed up while he’s out with her. She doesn’t seem to be aware of what exactly is going on in his life—just has a vague idea that he is perhaps bad news, a premonition that’s only borne out later in the song.

enrique heroThe desert-like setting (small town in an arid landscape) and the boy’s evident problems remind me of Enrique Iglesias’s 2003 hit, ‘Hero’. There, a man and a woman have made a break with ill-gotten cash, and the man winds up being dragged away for it while the woman watches, weeping. In ‘Hero’, Enrique asks in a rather sentimental fashion whether his girlfriend will ‘save [his] soul’; in ‘Trouble’, which I choose to read as the female response to this plea, Taylor realises that saving any man’s soul is a hell of a lot of trouble, and probably not even worth the emotional investment. The video shows her trying to help her boyfriend out as he’s being pushed around, and then being cheated on for her pains. So much for trying to be there for him, she should have known he wasn’t a hero worth the saving, just more ‘trouble’ and yet another ‘mistake’.

Jennifer Love Hewitt probably came to the same conclusion after all that broken hearted weeping.

It’s also interesting to note that what really pushes Taylor away from the boy is not his money problems or his evident ‘bad’ company, it’s the fact that he cheated on her in public. What drives her away is this final, physical betrayal. Who knows, if Enrique had acted the same way in ‘Hero’, might JLH have walked away? His ‘trouble’ is also therefore of his own making—not something that he once fell into and then was unable to walk away from. The sympathy the audience, and Taylor, might have had for him evaporates with this final image of his smug smile vanishing into the strobe lights.

Conclusion

trouble 2‘I Knew You Were Trouble’  negotiates a complicated terrain. On the one hand, the break-up song is traditionally seen as a victim’s plaint, the lament of someone who has been left behind to scoop pieces of themselves together, and thus automatically relegated to the ‘weak’ party. In this case, it’s very clear that Taylor is the one piecing herself together, who has ‘lost’ herself along the way.

On the other hand, the break up song, through its very existence and its assertion of feelings, acts as a self-affirmative medium. It gives its protagonists a chance to explore their residual feelings and come to some sort of catharsis, work through the remnants of relationships that sound (from the lyrics) intense and more than a little emotionally draining. The messy clearing away of these feelings is something that the protagonists do individually, engaging in a one-sided dialogue with the absent other in order to come to terms with their own feelings. It is an entirely self-driven and self-rewarding/abusing exercise, with the absent other as nothing more than a convenient prop on which to deflect abundant emotion.

Taylor’s song straddles this contradictory reading, positing her as both victim (the stray princess, the hunted object) as well as rueful learner, the burned hand who ‘should have known better’. She both denies and grants herself agency, veering from stance to stance within a few brief verses. The reading of the lyrics is only complicated by the music video and the accompanying voice-over. Though she starts the video prone on the bare ground, obviously recovering from some sort of emotional and/or physical blow, she pulls herself upright and ends up traipsing all over that site, heedlessly singing her story. Ain’t no one going to trouble her no more. witch taylor

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop the Taylor Love

This post has been a long time coming. A couple of months ago I put up a status that shared my newfound delight at listening to Taylor Swift. ‘I’m binge listening to Taylor Swift,’ it ran, ‘and discovering she has some profound things to say about life.’  Surprisingly, quite a few people ‘liked’ it, and it incited a great deal of debate on the topic Avril Lavigne versus Swifty. Of course, I supported Swifty in that debate.

I started listening to Taylor Swift (henceforth, I will call her Taylor because that seems to imply we are good friends, a feeling she totally encourages with her down to earth and VERY insightful lyrics) just about a year ago, coming, as ever, late to the music party.  I’m not sure how it started, what brought me to open up lists on 8tracks that were tagged ‘Taylor Swift’, or how long it took for me to realize I was listening to her not out of a hipster-like sense of irony, but because I genuinely liked what she was saying. Or, even if I didn’t like it, I understood it, in a way I haven’t understood any other singer.

taylor striped

A friend of mine once told me half-jokingly that every girl has a Taylor Swift song. He asked me what mine was. At that time, I hadn’t listened to much of her music. If he were to ask me now, I still wouldn’t have an answer, unless it is ‘All of them’.

What I find incredible about Taylor’s music is how very accessible and relatable it is. Sure, many songwriters have penned lyrics that seem to describe exactly what you, the listener, are going through at any point of time, and there are many I could name, but no one sounds as close to me as Taylor does. Listening to Taylor is like reading pages of an old journal; she is unapologetic, she is ‘emotional’ in the manner that many snooty people deride, she, in short, sounds like she’s talking on the phone to one of her best friends. When you’re listening to her, you feel let in, part of a circle, a safe space where your most vulnerable side can be shared, because that’s exactly the privilege she is extending to you.

kim insta

Lookee! Thanks to instagram we now know what Kim Kardashian is…eating? Buying? Wearing? I have no clue what those things are.

‘Nearness’ is something that popular culture seems more and more invested in emphasizing. What else explains the surge of reality TV, the stardom of Youtube vloggers—people like you and me, broadcasting to the world from their homes and smartphones, the fame of the common tweeter, many of whose followers number in the hundreds?  Despite this revolution however, stars and celebrities seem in some ways, further than ever. It’s easier to get famous, maybe, but the fame of these idols is of a different kind from that of the Youtube cover artist or reviewer-tweeter. Perhaps it’s the vestiges of the almost supernatural aura that once surrounded big record labels and studios, that impossible-to-define something that made someone recognized by one of these powerhouses ‘better’ than his/her peers. Whatever it is, despite their instagrams and tweets, celebs are still in a clime of their own, perhaps even more so for all the show of their accessibility. 

Taylor though, seems to have something genuine in her music. Cynics will sneer (I know a couple of my friends who definitely will) and say that her music too, like that of her fellow pop stars, is crafted to appear so, tailor-made (pun so intended) to convince me that she understands me and thus gull me into buying her songs and overpriced concert tickets. I might believe them, if it weren’t for the fact that Taylor often gets lambasted for the very reasons I find her music appealing. Her ‘emotional’ songs are roasted as being too whiny, too ‘angsty’ and ‘teenybopper’. She’s raked over the coals for writing songs about the men she’s dated, for giving voice to the sort of insecurities that many young women have in romantic relationships. I think the tag of ‘emotional’ is an extremely sexist one— are men ever derided for being ‘emotional’ in their music? I can think of many men who would certainly deserve that ‘charge’, Sam Smith and even legends like Eric Clapton come to mind.

I could ramble on about her half-philosophically, but here Im going to quickly list five Taylor songs and illustrate, through them, five points that make her music so appealing to me:

‘Story of us’: Taylor seems to say that it’s okay to be a little heartbroken when things don’t work out the way you expected. She gives voice to the nagging pettiness and worries that eat away at a person at the close of a relationship and I, for one, find the words ‘This is looking like a contest/Of who can act like they care less’ much closer to reality than beautiful words about wanting to find ‘someone’ like one’s ex. 

Sorry, Adele.

Sorry, Adele.

‘Red’: You can laugh at the strange comparisons in this song (‘Forgetting him was like trying to know somebody you’ve never met’?) but there’s something so heartfelt about every single one that I found myself strangely moved and agreeing with her on the choice of words. Taylor manages to do that, more often than you might think. She takes the weirdest of words and jams them together and has them make sense and sound right in a manner that few other people do.

‘All too well’: This is, to me, the most realistic break-up song ever. It talks about navigating the morass of emotion evoked when confronted by an ex, the what-ifs that tangle with memories both pleasant and unpleasant. That one line, ‘You call me up again just to break me like a promise/So casually cruel in the name of being honest’—I thought it was sheer poetry, even before Taylor commented that it was one of those she is proud of. The song winds through a series of emotions, confused and elated and wistful and angry all at the same time, and it astounds me again and again that she is able to pack all that into four minutes of music.

taylor1

‘We are never, ever, ever getting back together’: This song illustrates the fun side of Taylor. Have you SEEN the video? It never fails to cheer me up. It is so ludicrously over the top that you can’t help but laugh along with her. The song seems to say, as many Taylor songs do, that shit happens but you know what? We’re just going to cut our losses and move the hell on.

And dance while we do it.

Also, confession. The lyric that makes me crack up is ‘While you hide away and find your peace of mind/With some indie record that’s MUCH cooler than mine’. Too close for comfort.

 

‘Begin Again’: This is wistful Taylor, a Taylor who pops up in ‘Cold as You’, ‘White Horse’, ‘You’re not Sorry’—all slightly sad songs that nonetheless end on a note of hope. I love how her music, despite describeing unhappy scenarios, never descends to pure caterwauling or pleading to be taken back. It’s always a sort of wistful ‘I’m sad this didn’t work out’ vibe that plays through them, and they never descend to self-hate or self-doubt.

 

I think that, in effect, is what I love about Taylor. She dramatizes the emotional whirl storm that is a part of growing up and trusting people, but she never lets the bad encounters color her, or your, perception of life. She ‘can’t stop, won’t stop moving’, and will keep shaking herself off and going on. And she does it with such a delicious sense of self-parody, like in ’22’.

I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty damn inspirational.

Shake off the doubts yo, shake them off.

                                                               Shake off the doubts yo, shake them off.

Maya and the Mutants

How do you  know you’re a literary superstar? When you can say sappy things and have people read them as profound and status update worthy. angelou

Last week, Maya Angelou, writer, activist and feminist icon, passed away. As expected, Facebook and Twitter erupted, people outdoing each other in a bid to provide the most thought-provoking quote they had come across either through reading her work or, if you subscribe to the more cynical school of thought, via a quick Google search. I wasn’t surprised, really, given that this was exactly what had happened when, earlier this year, other literary/political greats passed away.

My own reading of Angelou has been very limited: I was introduced to her through a credit course I did in my first year of undergrad. She was part of a collection of writers brought together under the heading ‘Gender’, ostensibly placed there because the piece we were reading, ‘I rise’, was meant to be studied (in that particular course) in its feminist context. Beyond that poem, I have read nothing of Angelou.

Until the status updates appeared.

Among the many beautiful pieces I was thus treated to was one that a friend of mine had chosen to use, for whatever reason, as her display picture on a messaging app. The quote, which trailed above a picture of Angelou, was this:

Have enough courage to trust love one more time, and always one more time.

Now, plenty of people have said similar things. For instance, Auden declared, rather melodramatically, ‘We must love one another, or die’. Singers and songwriters state that love makes the world go around in various ways and Harry Potter, arguably one of the most influential literary icons of the last century, wins because he symbolizes and fights for, at some level, the power of love.

In all these cases, love does not restrict itself to the sense that it has gained in most commercial domains: that of romantic attachment. Yes, this is probably the most lucrative form of it, selling as it does cards, perfumes, books and loads of jewellery, but it is not the only one out there. What a lot of these writers, Rowling included, gesture towards with the term is a sort of universal agape, a feeling of hope born out of the hero’s ability to connect with and care for his fellow beings.

I am at an age where the idea of ‘happily ever after’ and perfect worlds seems laughable, where to even hint at believing in such things is to invite ridicule. The ‘adult world’, I’ve been told time and again, is no place for such escapist ideals. This is a land where to be open with your feelings is to expose yourself as a weakling; where courtship, whether romantically inclined or not, is a game that you play with half your attention on the board, the other half plotting ways of ensuring that you don’t ‘lose’ more than your opponent does. You can’t ever look as though you are completely earnest in what you do or feel or say; that’s just not safe anymore.

So, given all this scepticism and general cynicism that usually floods conversations, it was more than a bit surprising and, really, refreshing to see tributes to a woman who, quite vociferously, argued for the power of love. And argued for it despite having a life that no Disney moviemaker would touch with a ten-foot pole.

Angelou’s words came back with a bit of a bang when I watched the latest superhero blockbuster to hit screens: Bryan Singer’s X Men: Days of Future Past. Unlike its cousin, The Amazing Spiderman 2 (which released a little earlier this year and that I blogged about here), X Men is not halfway as stereotypically feel-good. X Men, arguably, never has been, chiefly because its primary villain, Magneto, is such a complicated, shades-of-grey character whose agenda of a mutant-run-world is all too close to the reality of sentiments that govern (and, to many eyes, justify) the behaviour of the state of Israel.

But Magneto and his almost-Zionism are a topic for another day.

Like any good superhero movie however, Days has its soaring speeches and breakdown moments. At a particularly low moment, young Charles buckles under the pressure of all the ‘despair and pain’ he sees in the world: ‘I don’t want your suffering, I don’t want your future!’ Then comes a heartwarming speech from a mentor figure, about finding the power of ‘hope’ within all that morass, the strength that people like Charles need to exude to their friends and followers. ‘We can bear their pain’, he is told, if he can bring himself to ‘hope again’. x-men-days-of-future-mcavoy-patrick-stewart-636-370

Isn’t that a superpower? The ability to look the world head on, see its evil, and yet find reserves of hope to take it on? Angelou basically said what every superhero movie, even the stylishly dark Nolan-Batman, depict. No matter what dross the world throws at you, what terrible agenda the villain has cobbled together, always trust hope, love, basic human goodness, one more time and always, one more time.

It’s the only thing, apparently, that can save the world.

 

 

 

A Sirius Play-list

Sirius-sirius-black-7016622-697-470 I felt like doing something silly and light, so here I’ve compiled a list of songs that remind me of Sirius Black. Yes, I do have a playlist on my ITunes called ‘Sirius moods’ (no pun intended), which I listen to when I’m feeling particularly in love with this character. It’s a collection of rather random pieces of music, which fit, in my imagination, with different parts of his life. You’re welcome to try the list and tell me what you think.

Warning: some of it is rather, well, teenybopper and/or angsty. Then again, so much of Sirius’s life is/was angsty, so I think I’m excused.

1)       ‘Prodigal’ by One Republic

Have you listened to the words of this song? It’s all about someone who’s running away. I was in the midst of a pile of running-away-from-home Sirius fanfic when  I discovered One Republic, and I thought it fit so well. Coupled with the fact that he eventually returns to his home (albeit, not willingly), I’ve sort of imagined him as Rowling’s retelling of the Prodigal Son tale.

 2)      What Makes You Beautiful by One Direction

I know, I should be ashamed of myself. Listening to One Direction at my age? It’s true, many of my friends do judge me a little for this (but many of my friends also listen to it on the sly, so clearly I’m not alone). But really, no matter how silly their lyrics (an entire verse of na-na-na?), they have an inability to light up my mood from their sheer inanity. They’re a time machine, taking me back to a time when I thought Backstreet Boys were the coolest and most profound singers I had ever heard. And Sirius does have a way of flipping back his hair (I imagine) that would get me ‘overwhelmed’. Also, you can’t deny that he turns heads when he walks through any door. And he does have an amazing way of lighting up my world. J

3)      Walking in the Air by Celtic Woman

This song magical and dreamy and talks about flying above the world while everyone sleeps below. Is there anything more appropriate for a Potter love-song, or a gentle lullaby while Sirius steers his bike among the clouds? There’s even talk of monsters arising and facing the air-walkers. It’s a gentle song, and the waifish voice makes it even more Potteresque to my ears.

4)      Before the Dawn by Evanescence

This song has, for me, very specific association. I was reading the third instalment of the ‘Sacrifices Arc’ by the immensely talented Lightning on the Wave when I was on an Evanescence backtrack, and came across this, one of their lesser-known songs. ‘Darkness Comes Before morn’ is pretty loaded with Sirius, and the angsty pull of the lyrics, I thought, captured his presentation perfectly. Sirius, whether in the Potterverse canon or its fanfic, is often tortured and bound by the weight of his history and/or blood and much of Evanescence’s haunting music suits him. ‘Even in Death’ is another favourite, encapsulating what I believe Lupin feels post Sirius’s death.

 5)      The Unknown Soldier by Breaking Benjamin

This doubles as my ode to Theon Greyjoy, since it talks about falling apart and yet persisting in the long and determined fight. Both characters fall to pieces, see the world in shades of grey (cue Sirius’s advice to Harry and Theon’s long climb to sanity from his Ramsay-inflected madness), and redeem themselves despite being discarded as traitors. I agree that Theon is actually guilt of betrayal, but hey, his terrible torture makes up for it.

6)      The Way it Ends by Landon Pigg

‘Is this to be our fate?’ Pigg asks at the start of this song. When I think about the kind of boys the Marauders were in Hogwarts, I have no doubt that they are amazed at where their lives led them. There they were, four shining boys, the (seemingly) perfect quartet, and then a little more than a decade later, one is dead, one is on the run for a crime he didn’t commit, one is an out-of-work werewolf and the last is a servant of the Dark Lord. And yet, there’s a sense of defiance in this song, an acceptance that if this is the terrible way things were supposed to go, there’s no regret at the close. Instead, the close is where ‘life begins’, echoing Dumbledore’s assertion that ‘Death is but the next great adventure’.

 7)      Ending (Brokeback Mountain OST) by Gustavo Santaolalla

Calm after the storm of Sirius’s life, I need comforting music when I close the covers of The Order of the Phoenix. This piece provides a quiet close to the chaos of emotion that Sirius’s passing generates in me time and time again. I like to think of him walking away into the sunset, his handsome face no longer ‘ravaged’ in death.

8)      Paradise by Coldplay

I know the song is about a girl, but the theme is pretty universal and no-gendered. Someone has a crappy life that doesn’t fulfil any of their expectations, so when they dream they go away into a personal paradise. Sirius’s life is pretty crappy. I would imagine he expected the world when he was young, only to have it fly out of his reach when he grew older and things fell apart so spectacularly. This song not only constructs a world to escape to, it always evokes, for me, an image of Sirius getting on his bike and riding off in a storm, hallooing across the billowing waves.

 9)      Are We Human or Are we Dancer by The Killers

 Yet another goodbye-to-life song for Sirius Black. I do need a lot of uplifting music to get over the end of Book 5. It’s a little disturbing.  It’s much more upbeat than the others I’ve listed and different from them in that it questions the idea of Sirius as ‘human’ at all, as a real person, instead bringing in the notion of him as a character whose ‘sign is vital’ but whose ‘hands are cold’. Are characters real if the book they’re housed in is not read? These are very profound questions that I’m not in a mood to answer. Sufficeth to say that I like the idea of a ‘dancer’ who moves through his host pages, twirling emotions and ideas in his wake.

10)   You’re Still Here by Poets of the Fall

When everything fades away, there’s still the stories we tell and the characters we celebrate. Come rain or shine or hailstorms of despair, the characters we love are always there to shine a beacon of hope, of inspiration, be a comfort. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve turned to a familiar book to hold myself together when particularly upset, or smelled its pages to remember ‘yesteryear’. As evident from my blogposts, Harry Potter is one of the series I’ve dipped into more than once, for various reasons. Yes, every re-read yields something new, but it also acts as an anchor, a reminder that the more things change, the more some things, including great stories, remain the same.

The ones we love never truly leave us.

 

 

 

In hiberna noctum

This evening, I revisited a piece of music that was a constant companion of mine last winter. It rang out in my little hostel room, its re-run frequency reaching its peak around 5:30- 6:30 in the evening, as the season leached sunlight from the day. It’s not the most cheerful thing to listen to when you’re getting used to seasonal shifts, or in a constantly weepy mood, or living in a chilly hostel room with the threat of exams hanging over your head. But it’s beautiful and mysterious, and is so perfectly ‘Potter’ for those very reasons.

If there’s one thing the Harry Potter movies did well, it was the music. You can almost hear the growing darkness as you progress musically through the series- from the soaring and magical ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ that forms the backbone of the soundtrack for the first two movies, to the bittersweet air of ‘Lily’s theme’ that riddles the second  half of the seventh. As Harry grows older, the music ages with him, highlighting the increasingly personal nature of his fight against the Dark.

‘In Noctem’ was originally part of the movie- sung by the Hogwarts choir in a deleted scene. As clouds gather and ominous thunder rattles the windows of the castle, the various residents hold their breath, waiting for something momentous to happen. That something momentous turns out to be the attack on the school, orchestrated by Draco Malfoy (whose role in the book made me believe that he would turn out to be an important character in ‘DH’. Alas, I was wrong).  This is the invasion that results in the death of Dumbledore, an event which explains the lyrics of the song (‘Tell the ones, the ones I love, I never will forget’) and the final farewell they imply.

I think ‘In Noctem’ fits in wonderfully with the overall darker, more mature tone of ‘Half Blood Prince’ (the movie, the book read like a typical high school romance in parts). It’s a shame they cut this scene out, it would have been good payoff for all the stalking we’d done of Malfoy. Not to mention it would have finally shown him in the decisive moment of swinging his feet off his bed and walking into the war.

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Of course, one could argue that Malfoy started this journey when he took the Mark. But when we see him in the first few scenes of the movie (and the first chapters of the book), he still comes across as a schoolyard braggart, a kid in over his head and not realizing it, more taken with the glamour of being part of something that his idolized father belongs to than understanding what exactly that movement stands for, or the sacrifices it will demand of him. Over the year, he comes to realize the seriousness of Voldemort’s threats and the importance of the success of his mission. At the end, he is as adult as he will ever be in the pages of the Potter books- he makes a decision and then lives to regret the consequences.

I loved the development of Malfoy’s character in ‘HBP’, and I think Tom Felton did a great job translating his struggle in the movie. I rather wish Rowling had continued to give him some amount of attention in ‘DH’- the omission of Draco character building was one of the major problems I had with the book. It is as though he is fated, like the rest of his Slytherin housemates, to pass unlamented in noctum, to stage their struggles and transitions to adulthood off-screen, or on the director’s floor with the other deleted, shorn bits of the films.

 Carry my soul into the night.