Oh What A Shame That You Came Here With Some[Thing]: What’s Happening to Ke$ha?

There is a clear distinction between a “warrior” and a “cannibal.” A cannibal destroys, while a warrior defends. Michel de Montaigne disagreed; in the best defense of cannibals ever written, he explains “each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice.” You wanna see some twisted crap, said Michel, look around your so-called Renaissance, Chuck. But all-time-greatest skeptics aside, the cannibal has become – as anthropologist Peter Hulme noted – a “cultural sign of tyranny, brutality, and excess.” Cannibals may live by a basic order or tribual ritual, but they defy the most basic tenet of conventional humanist ethics: the respect for human life. Warrior might be a more neutral term, but it does have an etymological legacy outside of stringent militarism. In The Republic, Plato defined the warrior as the protector of the state, leaving the philosopher to rule. The term has frequently been used to describe figures as diverse as Metta World Peace and the Tasmanian Devil, yet in his 1851 poem addressing Queen Victoria, Alfred Lord Tennyson uses it in a way to emphasize its iconoclasm:

Revered, beloved–O you that hold
A nobler office upon earth
Than arms, or power of brain, or birth
Could give the warrior kings of old,

In his vision for the triumph of modernity (represented in Victoria’s crown), Tennyson pits British politeness against the ever-present nostalgia for classical texts. It’s a similar impulse that led Alexander Pope to polish up the Iliad in case Achilles’ rudeness made British readers gasp. My point is that a warriors ethos, while antiquated, has the stimulating possibility to be either institutionalised (as in Plato) or a wild mercenary force  (like Tony Allen). Not so with cannibals, it would seem: they – to unfairly paraphrase a Brave New World quote I was obsessed with in high school“eat civilization.” There’s more hope for domesticating a raccoon than a honey badger, just as it’s easier to bring a warrior into the fold than a cannibal.

And this pretentious discussion of theoretical lexicography is a long way of saying that Ke$ha is growing up.

You get it, right? Ke$ha’s first EP was called Cannibal and her latest is called Warrior. The EP eventually became Animal, which in her eyes must be a lateral move [correction: Cannibal came out of Animal, not vice versa; whatever, I’m keeping this to be consistent with my prolonged act of pretension]. The significant addition from Warrior and Animal was the song “Tik Tok,” when Ke$ha brags that she wakes up, puts on her glasses, and brushes her teeth with Jack Daniels.

In the video for “Blow,” Ke$ha expressed her aversion to normative behavior by killing James Van Der Beek.

On these breakouts, a startlingly confident and brazen young woman defiantly announces her emptiness; like the Nihilists in The Big Lebowski, she believes in nothing. The dollar sign in the middle of her name is the most most materialistic option available on your keyboard: if you attempt look to her essence (as I’ve dedicated myself to doing), what you’ll find is commodity . This is a woman who would need a Silkwood shower to get all the glitter out of her hair. She seems to be going out of her way to portray herself as the girl most likely to go home with you even though you’ve just met her. We would think that she would be at home in the clubs that are the settings of most of songs. But in “Blow,” her best song, she sings about imploding them. I’ve often felt that Ke$ha would be an inverted ideal for playing Anne Rice’s Lestat, or a Baz Luhrman version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula: she’s vampiric and decadent, destroying the world she inhabits, celebrating her own gothic stupidity while ignoring everything else that exists. Alternately, since pre-Warrior Ke$ha was defined by her cheeky contradictions, she recalls “Beef” from Phantom of the Paradise, glam star of pronounced decadence who is a really a finicky kitty kat premadonna.

Yet, again, she’s growing up, building a Tower to Babel out of glitter and axe body spray and Wayne Coyne’s left-over costumes.

The first four lines of the first and titular track Warrior becomes, perplexingly, the kind of mission statement that her prior work so gloriously lacked:

We were born to break the doors down
Fightin’ till the end
It’s something that’s inside of us
It’s how we’ve always been

Fighting? What?! Something inside us?! A past and a history? It’s first two lines suggest violent imperatives: “break,” “fight.” Walt Whitman also said he wanted to “blow the jambs off the doors,” but Walt Whitman also never wore a headdress made out of his fans’ teeth. In this song, Ke$ha sets up an anti-ethos in which she includes her fans. They too can be misfit warriors, and they’re going to have a “revolution.” Oh dear. The Ke$ha on Cannibal wanted nothing more than to pay as few drinks as possible, but this new version is “ready to fight”!?!?! Has Ke$ha been hanging with Symbionese Liberation Army? When she repeats “Warrior,” she’s not making fun of it. “Warrior” has three clear syllables. When Ke$ha croons, it has at least eight. She’s singing an anthem about being rejected and doing something about it, about “something that’s inside of us” instead of glittery surfaces.

“Die Young” is the take-away track of the album and its admittedly awesome. As she opens, she describes a “heart beat like the beat of a drum,” a tribal rhythm which is about as close as she’ll get to working with Ladysmith Black Manzambo. And here she again celebrates the kind of hedonistic behavior that characterized Cannibal, but its framed by that opening song (and this album cover) about being the self-appointed queen of the misfit toys. And now she’ll keep dancing until she dies, whereas the old Ke$ha would probably just be satisfied with passing out in the bathroom. She wouldn’t die for anything; she’d just get tired and go home.

“Die Young” is also about empowerment, while “Tik Tok” is about doing whatever the f*** you want. That’s the transition that characterizes early- and late-period Ke$ha. For instance, Dirty Love (co-sung by Iggy Pop, who also got “serious” and thus worse) is transcendentally trashy, but it’s a ballad of independence. In it, Ke$ha pushes back against the world rather than revelling in its excesses. Ke$ha has stated that the sound of Warrior is inspired by Iggy’s The Idiot, which is the wrong influence for her. That album was inspired by equal parts Doestoevsky and David Bowie. She should instead be looking to the perfect trash of Ig’s Stooges output: The Stooges, Fun House, and Raw Power. So while I’ m delighted that Iggy and Ke$ha know each other, perhaps carnally, it’s something of a letdown.

When she gets to “All That Matters,” we expect her to sing about eternal love or a red wheelbarrow, but instead she turns back into the gal from Cannibal when she parallels the “beautiful life” (“just wanna get high”) with a meaningful one (“been spending too much energy on stupid shit”). At times, listening to Warrior is like watching a tennis match between the Marquis de Sade and Apollo.  But mostly she’s all “I am woman hear me roar”ing. And this beautifully stupid yet undeniable rich hummingbird might fade to a familiar consonance. In other words, this place about to blow.

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“Why Don’t You Tell Me Who’s On The Phone?” – THE AMERICANS

The first episode of The Americans, the electric and perhaps soon-to-be-best show on television, does everything that a basic cable pilot is supposed to do. Characters are established, talents defined, backgrounds introduced but not fully explored. Phillip and Elizabeth are the spies next door – not a new conceit (see: Homeland), but the only time I can think of that they take the form of communists. The period details seem right: excitement over new malls, the space program, stereo equipment, and the new moralist-in-chief Ronald Reagan. The pilot is well-directed, recalling the best elements of the action of the Bourne movies and network shows (24, Lost) that contained a moral complexity ushered in by this new golden age of TV. The performances are uniformly good. But calling it a great basic cable pilot is a bit of a back-handed compliment: it lacks the urgency and intentional confusion of something like Deadwood or The Wire, shows that tell you to sink or swim. I watched it three times, however, and enjoyed it as much as any movie I saw last year.  The use of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” is my favorite song cue since, I don’t know, Drive or something. It fully justifies Lindsey Buckingham’s maniacal vision of involving the USC Marching Band in the follow-up to one of the best selling albums ever.

Yet if the first episode signals that we are going to be watching entertaining television, the second episode shows the intellectual and historical vibes that you might think an FX show would ignore. I won’t spoil it too much, but it’s a dark storyline involving our spy protagonists poisoning the son of Casper Weinberger’s maid and only offering the antidote in exchange for putting a bugging device in the study of Reagan’s Secretary of Defense. It’s an intense plot that finds us rooting fiercely against our spies even as the domestic interludes force us to identify with them. As they violently bully a blameless African-American woman living in a small apartment in Anacostia, we rely on the vantage point of the villains in the scenario. Matthew Rhys, an actor I’ve never seen before who looks uncannily like a young Lindsey Buckingham, is brilliant and terrifying in these scenes: a psychotic nationalism coarses through his veins, which is all the more troubling because the first episode saw him attempting to give up his service to the motherland. In the pilot, Keri Russell’s Elizabeth was the one who put duty over feeling; now her husband becomes the one who is willing to violate a greedy empire at its roots by attacking it on any level.

This is an unusually dark plot for basic cable, but it works within the competing logics and ideologies of capitalism and communism: the way one might attack or characterize the other. For our communist heroes, the maid represents the dehumanizing luxuries of capitalist ruling class. Yet she has also internalized its core values, which her enemies are quick to point out. Marx famously called religion the opium of the people, and in this episode Phillip gives a similar spiel, basically reducing the devout woman’s faith to her submission to dehumanizing institutions. And yet it’s clear Phillip and Elizabeth don’t totally believe this: they also have internalized American values, particularly surrounding the family. The key symbol of this episode is caviar – one of the more blatant luxuries you can find – and its relationship to both the American patriot and the communist spy. The first episode ends with the couple reaffirming their commitment to the communist cause. The second concludes with them questioning it more. In 1981, we’re at a moment where socialism is (apparently) no longer about converting the masses, but using them as part of a political game. There’s a hypocrisy here that’s embedded within ideology itself.

The Americans may ultimately aspire not to the serial pyrotechnics of procedurals like Justified, but the intense clash between subjects and states recalls something more like The Lives of Others or Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy. It’s a tricky line to walk, because the more these characters rip away at the fabric of America, the more we’re encouraged to distrust them and even dislike them. They aren’t socialist Robin Hoods. They frequently refer to Ronald Reagan – who even Barack Obama likes – as a maniac. And further, the early episodes set up the shaky foundation on which their relationship is built, already threatening to crack. By pitting the narrative of these characters against Reagan’s increasingly fervent nationalist methods, we are probably going to see the worst of both forces. In the middle is Noah Emmerich’s ambivalent FBI agent neighbor (a contrivance I’m willing to accept for now) whom we’ve learned is extremely competent yet not entirely stable. After two episodes, The Americans has done a solid job of setting up the chess pieces. I worry that it may not be cut out for an extended run; the setup seems better suited for a mini-series that has a definitive end date. But so far the ambivalent relationship between the show and its characters is revelatory. I do hope its clear and intriguing premise put it in a better position than my beloved and now lost shaggy-dog detective show TerriersWhere that show mixed the dark with the delightful, so far on The Americans all we’re getting is the dark. Let’s hope the ratings keep up, if only so the show can ascend chronologically to the release of Fleetwood Mac’s Gypsy.

How To Beat the System That Is Beating The System: Paper Mills

Before I begin, I should note that I have never done and am not going to do what I describe here. But maybe you could do it!

The other day I was looking for a coherent plot summary for Charles Brockden Brown’s novel Wieland, a work that only takes up a few paragraphs of my dissertation. Rather than rereading the book, I just wanted to make sure I had the chronology, setting, and character names correct so I could focus on one scene (he said, as you notice all the shady justifications for this shortcut). I came to Gradesaver.com, which offered a pretty unexceptional Cliff Notes of the story. While it was helpful for my purposes, I’m flustered to know that it’s an easy out for students who don’t want to grapple with Brown’s profoundly tricky narrative and the gothic surprises that they will encounter. However, what drew my attention was the opportunity for $$$ on the right:

gradesaver

This is classic paper-mill territory. The Daniel Ellsberg of this group is an opportunist named Dave Tomar who wrote about his experiences working for one of these places first under a pseudonym for the Chronicle of Higher Education and more recently in a book I have no intention of reading (here’s a review). There are so many ways of condemning this behavior that it’s boring to go through them, and nothing is going to stop these goon sites from pawning their crappy papers out to college students. I could have said “lazy” college students, but that’s a generalization I don’t want to make.

But here’s the most egregious problem that transcends merely the setting of paper mills and indicts the colleges that so frequently condemn them: Generic Kelly goes to college from her sheltered suburb. On the first day of class, there’s a hip friendly dude wearing a stupid hat and handing out a cool T-shirt. All you have to do is sign up for this credit card, he says, in a manner that makes Generic Kelly  think he’s flirting with her. So she does, and when she gets it, it’s free money and all she has to do is make the fifteen dollar minimum payments and she doesn’t have to eat the meal plan at the cafeteria anymore.* She’s able to buy tickets to see Train. She can do a whole lot of online shopping. And since her parents don’t get the bill, they don’t know what’s up. But all this new access to (not)money gets in the way of less significant stuff like class, and after about six weeks, GK has to hand in an five page research paper on Shakespeare’s Measure on Measure [sic] and she hasn’t even read the play. But wait! There’s Gradesaver.com! She gets to do more shopping! In fact, she can just type in “Measure for Measure paper” (after the cover of the book reminds her of the title) and this is her first hit:

123help

Now $19.95 is pretty steep, and since Katie wants/needs to do well on this paper, she figures she may as well buy the $34.95 one – ironically enough on “morality” in Measure for Measure. Now that’s a preposterous price, but wait: Generic Kelly has a credit card  . . . you see where this is going. I’m being pretty reductive here, but I’m not making fun of Kelly: I’m describing the behavior I would have engaged in as a college freshman if I had access to these outlets. It could also come from the other side, when a teacher has bullied and belittled a student into this behavior. The whole system is FUBAR, y’all.

Here might be one way to get back of these vipers and drain some of their capital. I have some pretty awful papers that I wrote in high school like this:

noexit

It’s dreadful (“An Existentialist’s Hell”: HA!), but maybe I could clean it up a bit so that the ghastly content of the paper is covered up by more polished prose. The argument is non-existent (I think I was making a point about how bad it sucks for Garcin), but the language is pristine, furnished by some critical jargon and words like “foreshadowing” and “mimemis.” Then I grab 25 bucks from the saps at Gradesaver, who sell it to poor Generic Kelly for her Introduction to Drama class (by now she probably has four high interest credit cards, because she’s getting like four applications a week by mail, naturally). However, what I do next is turn the paper in to an as-of-yet non-existent public site. Turnitin.com is an example of sites that offer subscription services, and they’re valuable; but what if it was even easier? What if graduate students, professors, and intelligent people began selling their papers, and then uploading their papers to a site that every teacher could easily access. We bombard these sites with well-written hokum that sounds good if you don’t read the book. Word of mouth would spread, and any time a 200-level teacher got a paper on Leaves of Grass that referenced Deleuze’s rhizome, he or she could just type in a sentence from the site and easily figure out that it was written by an MA student who used the twenty-five bucks to buy her own copy of Anti-Oedipus. Generic Kelly goes to the honor council, and hopefully she learns her lesson. Ideally, that intervention would happen sooner, and of course we should structure our courses so it will. But as “The Shadow Scholar” indicates, the industry is flourishing, and this might be a way to throw a wrench in it.

You might think I’m encouraging plagiarism, but I would argue that I’m discouraging it.  I’m depleting the resources of a paper mill that shouldn’t exist and I’m providing a paper that can be easily discovered as counterfeit. Generic Kelly goes through the honor council education program and hopefully they turn her on to someone who talks to her about financial responsibility.

And I’ve made 25 bucks.**

*- Steps are being made to limit predatory practices by lenders (see here)  but I still see these folks around Maryland.

** – I realize the fallacy here is that Gradesaver.com will make 35 bucks off Generic Katie. But I guess I’m envisioning an apocalyptic scenario where so many students get caught that they stop using these sites. Highly and unrealistically idealistic, I know.

An Elegy to a Show That Won’t Be Missed

With little fanfare, Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23 was cancelled a few weeks ago. So far as I know, there hasn’t been a protest. Yet I was one of show’s few admiring if not evangelical fans. I particularly like the way it consistently befuddles and ridicules the highly conventional sitcom aspirations of its protagonist, June (played by the bright and big-eyed Dreama Walker, who is fantastic). June wants normal things, and for this she’s pushed into a Sisyphian struggle in which she frequently fails by behaving with optimism in the human race that so consistently disappoints her. On the flip side are the joyfully hedonistic “B” of the title, Chloe, and James Van Der Beek as himself (it was funny, trust me). In the midst of June’s simple ambitions, their extraordinary selfishness and superficiality works to destroy June’s dreams. As a deconstruction of the “we’re justa buncha people livin in the big city in apartments we would never be able to afford it it weren’ta fiction!” sitcom, it was frequently funny if not perfect (“The pervert next door” was just as unfunny as it sounds). Yet, perversely, … the B reaches out to the people who hated Friends and were indifferent to Seinfeld, even though those people are so suspicious of network television that they probably never watched it anyway. Also, they’re probably this guy:

television

In other words, why I liked it is exactly why it got cancelled.

Happy Endings, however, will continue unabated despite similarly low ratings. The show is ostensibly the kind of sitcom that the B is parodying and undermining. But I get the feeling that Happy Endings thinks it’s doing what I’ve just described above, and is immensely proud of itself for doing so. Yet while June’s almost platonic likability is constantly parodied, the fashionable bros and chicas of Happy Endings are ironically presented as the implausibly likable people who we’re supposed to wish we were friends with. To the contrary, I am glad I do not know any of these narcissists. In a recent episode, Penny – the show’s funniest character – spends time with normal individuals and wishes she was regressively engaging in impossible sitcom behavior with the core group. This is not an unfamiliar plot, but it happens in such a way that prizes the brilliant scenarios that the show’s creator see themselves as developing. Don’t get me wrong: there’s a “look at me” quality to …the B as well, but the gang at Happy Endings are always drawing attention to not-so-bad behavior as if it’s the kind of button-pushing that you don’t find on free TV. Yet . . . the B had the advantage of never desiring to make its characters likable, or to have us care about them.  (And I find Happy Endings funny, and will continue watching it, even if its maddening, and even if Damon Wayans’ son’s acting style can be best described as  “slightly more naturalistic than the Hamburgler”)

I listen to and read a lot of TV critics. They’re everywhere. I don’t know why someone should be recapping and thematizing the plot of New Girl or Bunheads and discussing its virtues and failings within an hour of its air-time, but there are a lot of them and they’re usually complaining on Twitter about having to review Criminal Minds before they go to bed. One of the virtues of sitcoms that these folks are constantly trumpeting is the value of “characters.” They’re always mentioning the episodes of The Simpsons in which Homer and Lisa have meaningful interaction, or the Sam and Diane relationship on Cheers. And, hey, that’s all great, but frankly I prefer the wall-to-wall silliness of Marge vs. the Monorail or Mr. Plow, or the episode when Cliff loses all his money on Final Jeopardy because he explains that three people he’s never of are “three people who have never been in my kitchen.” Yet those critics perversely love Community and talk about their investment in characters who are never remotely consistent and are often involved in comic book plots. I find Joel McHale’s character to be reprehensible in a way that I enjoy watching his comeuppance, and he’s the star of the show. Gillian Jacobs’ Britta seems insufferable; that’s supposed to be the point, right? I enjoy Alison Brie’s endless well of perkiness because it seems to be so misplaced and irrational, not because it seems like a clear outgrowth of her character. But mostly I enjoy plots centered around blanket-forts or paintball games framed as a spaghetti western parody. I like Community because of its experimentation, its wit its visual invention, and its endless supply of references. Not because these characters are people.

Caring about the characters on . . . The B is something of a fools errand. And with that out of the way, I was just free to enjoy their dangerous and off-kilter behavior. The joke of the show is that June, the corn-fed moralist, is just as self-destructive as Chloe, the hedonist, and nearly as vacuous as James Van Der Beek’s caricature of himself. The self-righteousness of June leads her, as she pits herself against these cosmopolitans, to denounce the hellish version of the big city that the show places her in. It’s not only that Chloe was better trained to navigate the worlds that June was constantly eating June up, it’s that what June sees as her fundamental optimism and decency is the same kind of misguided entitlement that Lena Dunham is chronicling on Girls. June believes that her work ethic makes her better than everyone else, while Chloe believes in nothing. And yet, because Dreama Walker is such a fine comic actress, we enjoy watching this. I will argue (probably inconsistently) that June’s defiant dignity puts her in the category of the Little Tramp or Cosmo Kramer: ridiculous figures whose self-belief and inexhaustible spirit makes their absurdity not only bearable but also weirdly inspiring.

In an outstanding article about the death of Mitch Hedberg, Sam Anderson wrote, “Sitcoms aren’t about jokes, they’re about zany neighbors who eat too much of your pizza and photogenic dogs who give you meaningful looks.” In 2005, he was writing in that dismal age when Arrested Development was doomed to be canceled and before 30 Rock and The Office would reinvent the thirty minute comedy. And what I’ve imposed above about Sisyphus and Charlie Chaplin is admittedly a weak intellectualization of a show that aspired to very little. Don’t Trust the B in Apartment was about jokes, and that’s mostly why I’ll miss it.

DAVID FOSTER WALLACE: YOUR FIRST YEAR ENGLISH TEACHER

This week, I guest-lectured in a course called “Introduction to Literary Studies” that was unlike the kinds of literature surveys I’ve taught at Maryland. While most of my classes are organized historically or thematically, this course focused on the micro- and macro-elements of literary analysis and production: plot, character, setting, symbol, etc. We tend to assume students – even English majors – have a firm understanding of these elements, but they often have vague ideas about how to write about them, and this can be encouraged through the kind of discussion that a class such as this one encourages.

Asked to lecture on “setting,” I used two stories – Edwidge Danticat’s Wall of Fire Rising and Jay McInerney’s It’s 6 Am, Do You Know Where You Are? – as a way of talking about “location” and “dislocation,” of alienation and affiliation, and the means by which settings are characters and also how characters define the worlds around them through imagination. As Milton explains, “the mind is its own place, and in itself, can make heaven of Hell, and a hell of Heaven.” With this quote, I’m always reminded of the dwarves in C.S. Lewis The Last Battle, who think they’re stuck in a dank barn when they’re actually standing before a great feast.

I’m willing to both listen to and make arguments that, in survey courses, we should focus more on the intersection between literature and the world more than just the fundamentals of literature itself. But teaching “setting” invites examinations of social and political urgencies that literary discourse at once shapes and responds to. The emergence of the novel – as the great scholarship of people like Ian Watt, Michael McKeon, Nancy Armstrong, and William Warner have shown – is the result of an interrogation of “plot” and “character,” of narrative realism and what can be conveyed about psychology in writing. So by introducing students to these early, we offer them the foundations to discuss form and poetics in connection with epistemology and history.

David Foster Wallace is a brilliant guy who I know little about. I read about fifty pages of Infinite Jest and stopped, still planning to finish it later. His essay on Lost Highway is probably my favorite thing written about David Lynch. But a while ago I was referred to Wallace’s syllabi for a class like the one I was described. The University of Texas has released these from the David Foster Wallace archive. While teaching at Pomona college, Wallace taught elements of fiction with a syllabus made up entirely of mass-market paperbacks / airport best-sellers. Here’s the list.

wallacelist

Later in the syllabus, he explains that the “lightweighish” nature of these books is itself a fiction, and explains that evaluating them critically will be more difficult than other sections that use canonical texts. Here’s how he explains the “aim of the course”

wallaceaimofclassEver the iconoclastic iconoclast, Wallace is primarily interested in teaching his students not what to read, but how to read. With these selections, students don’t struggle with narrative or language, so they can focus primarily on developing critical insight and articulating it clearly. This is a 100-level class; it’s open to all comers and probably to unselective students who are probably choosing a section based on time and availability. My guess is that by and large actual English majors would prefer to read English literature, but that’s not a hypothesis I’m going to make much effort to validate. Wallace’s students probably thought they knew already how to go “below the surface,” but he apparently spends the entire time telling them how to put their findings into categories and to explain their complexities. As I thought about organizing a syllabus around elements of fiction, the one work that would seem essential when talking about setting is a haunted house story. Why not The Shining – in which the Overlook hotel is alive?

Whatever the case, reading Wallace’s materials invites us to ask what we want students to learn and what we expect them to know already. And also, we can wonder if we’re skipping this in a historical or topic-oriented survey.

(In case you missed it, here’s the link to the Wallace materials

http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/press/releases/2010/dfw/teaching/