suffer for fashion

Of Montreal and Commercial Culture
a speculative analysis of Kevin Barnes' penis, Outback Steakhouse, Selling Out and the feminine consumptive sphere

Of Montreal frontman Kevin Barnes registers a strange form of aggressive glam, a kind of masculinist femininity. Quite happy to dress up glitzy at shows (or not dress in much at all), sings high-voiced in vaudevillian disco tracks and takes Jean Genet as his idol (who was also one of Bowie's, in turn another of Barnes'). Yet underneath all this Patrick Wolf-esque sheen (segue - are we seeing a reemergence of a much-needed camp aesthetic in the dullness of indie?), lies a strangely pathological kind of masculinity - it's certainly not your run of the mill jock type, but it's still there - most of the songs on Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? spend their time blaming his wife for their (now-resolved) breakup and his subsequent breakdown, crafting the female as romantic succubus.

"there's the girl that left me bitter / want to pay some other girl to just walk up to her and hit her" (She's a Rejector)

"Eva, I'm sorry, but you will never have me / to me, you're just some faggy girl / and I need a lover with soul power" (Bunny Ain't No Kind of Rider)

No lyrics better register the congealed and confused sexuality/violence of Barnes persona.

Now, how might all of this fit in with Barnes now avowed happiness to willfully commercialise his music? I say avowed because Barnes penned a 1000+ word diatribe to Stereogum and its readers in anticipatory response to backlash from a new ad featuring not only the band's music - as was done last year when Outback Steakhouse hilariously covered their Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games - but the members themselves discussing their 're-reunion' (LOL!) in relation to some swanky new mobile phone. He entitled the essay, 'Selling Out Isn't Possible', part of which follows:

The pseudo-nihilistic punk rockers of the 70's created an impossible code in which no one can actually live by. It's such garbage. The idea that anyone who attempts to do anything commercial is a sell out is completely out of touch with reality. The punk rock manifesto is one of anarchy and intolerance. The punk rockers polluted our minds. They offered a solution that had no future. Of course, if the world would have ended before Sandinista! was released then everything would have been alright. It didn't. Now we have all of these half-conceived ideas and idiot philosophies floating around to confuse and alienate us. I think it is important to face reality. It is important to decide whether you are going to completely rail against the system or find a way to make it work for you. You cannot do both -- and if you attempt to do both you will only become even more bitter and confused.

He also goes on to describe the machinations of capitalism through a metaphor about sucking cocks and slitting throats (there he goes again, getting all sexually bloody). Nevertheless, the main 'thrust' of his more or less convincing argument is that 'selling out' (licensing your songs/image to other companies) is a good way for struggling indie artists to make a bit on the side and thereby continuing making the albums we love.

Now I'm not going to stray entirely into the perennial anti/capitalist debate over selling out and integrity and all that, but rather enter it from a sort of oblique angle, one that Barnes perceptively discusses himself and one that got me thinking about all this in the first place: the punk ethos. As that chunky quote from his essay above signals, Barnes argues that it is the contribution of punk to the formation of indie that makes the (sub)culture so strongly hostile to any kind of commercialisation. These comments clearly articulate with the longstanding notion of the maintenance of 'authenticity' and purity within musical groups, initiated by punk and certainly inherited by indie. The indie quest for an imagined state of purity is one of a strong antithesis to the always present, in fact, defining mainstream (that being one of the main problems of indie, it's constant need for this monolithic other to conceive itself against, an imagined fulcrum). Part of this quest is the clear repudiation of the 'pollutants' of mainstream corporate culture and the recognition of consumption of its products as a betrayal. Blah blah. This sort of stuff pops up all the time. Barnes takes issue with those music fans for whom apparently a strange form of transvaluation occurs between a music and the activities of its producer that forever strips the pure musical expression of its untainted meaning. This notion of 'tarnished' music pops up remarkably often with indie fans, who regularly comment how a musician 'ruins' 'their' (and here the possessive noun seems to somehow refer to the fan more so than the artist) music - see, for example, the backlash against Bradford Cox. Indie fans somehow manage to abstract this music from what is already an inevitably commercial ('sold out') system of production (or, moreover, consumption) and then lambaste any other form of money-making that doesn't have a clear aesthetic (i.e., purely musical) goal. So I hear you, Kev, when you say stuff like:

People who wanna be artists have the hardest time of it 'cause we are held up to these impossible standards. We're expected to die penniless and insane so that the people we have moved and entertained over the years can keep us to themselves. So that they can feel a personal and untarnished connection with our art. The second we try to earn a living wage or, god forbid, promote our art in the mainstream, we are placed under the knives of the sanctimonious indie fascists.

But I'm not so much arguing one way or the other here, nor am I drawing battle lines between fans and producers as if one holds the moral key. Rather, I'm crapping on about all this to get to a point I do find quite interesting in relation to Of Montreal especially, how this prototypically indie anti-commercial/mainstream ethos registers as a strongly masculinist stance. It is an ideology of exclusion, as Moore notes: "notions of anticommercial authenticity are inseperable from anxieties about mass culture and consumerism which echo Oedipal fears of castration and male uneasiness about stereotypically feminine attributes, such as passivity and vanity" (from 'Postmodernism and Punk Subculture'). In the grammar of indie, independence is 'sterilised' or 'tarnished' by commodification outside pure musical expression and thus within the mainstream, which absorbs and domesticates these acts. This ideological coupling of the feminine with the consumptive still holds strong even in our pervasively consumerist society - witness the conclusion to this year's Superbad, it's telling the space in which the two male protagonists and close friends Evan and Seth are finally torn asunder after their adolescent bonding experience: the mall. And this separation of male comrades is inextricably tied to the young women they pair off with, and thus we have the feminised sphere of consumption.

Now, we begin to tenuously tie these strings together, with an initial recognition that although he may have 'sold out' in the indie/punk sense of the term, Barnes cock is still firmly in place (no "fears of castration"), wilfully paraded around, in fact. Not only, but Barnes is quite happy to Suffer for Fashion ("stereotypically feminine attributes") whilst doing so. We might secondly note that there is a quite definite overlap between the aesthetics of Of Montreal and that of advertising culture - both quite glossy (even though Barnes' version is intentionally shambolic) and stylised - how else would Wraith Pinned to the Mist... translate so easily into an advertising jingle? And it's really no surprise that you'd find the band themselves all dressed up in their trademark wacky attire in this new T-mobile meta-ad.

So, the crux (crutch?) of it: Barnes has successfully found a way to negotiate these sexualised streams, by paradoxically retaining a form of very-visibile masculinity of success and violence underneath the feminine ways of style and consumption, or 'selling out'. "Selling Out Isn't Possible" for Barnes because, consciously or not, he knows that he can capitulate to commercial culture and still walk away with his dick intact, in fact he can use his well-manicured tackle as the prime agent of his successful reconciliation of the feminine and masculine in capitalism.

Of Montreal - Suffer For Fashion

(Stay tuned next post for a literary analysis of the existential vacuum suggested by Outback Steakhouse's re-jingling of Wraith Pinned to the Mist... ("let's go Outback tonight / Life will still be there tomorrow")*


2 riffs:

El said...

My gosh, Lawson. I seriously wish my computer didn't turn off as it did. But life must go on.. and I must strain to recall all the rubbish I wrote out before. I tried to recall it last night, but there was a dire sleep deprivation situation and unfortunately it had to be seen to.

So, I thought your article was really fantastic. First off, I thought the way in which you associated Barnes' work with notions of masculinity (success, violence) and femininity (fashion, passivity) were brilliant, it's something that wouldn't have even occurred to me. But I suppose it's the blurring of those lines which makes him an interesting character, for some reason or another, there is a carnivalesque fascination about androgyny. Needless to say, it's not as if this is the first time that a dynamic yet rather ambiguous sexual identity has become a significant proponent of the musical icon. If you look back to someone like Morrissey, he emphatically stated for years and years that he was a celibate asexual.. and music journalists didn't know how to rationalise this. They didn't know how to deal with someone who contested that insisted that they didn't have a sexual identity.. and to me, it highlights that some kind of desire to have an adequate understanding of sexual and personal identity, not only within our musical icons but also within ourselves.

But as for selling out, I thought you dealt with the issue extraordinarily well. You helped consolidate a few of the ideas that were rolling around in my head for a long time, indeed. I think it's particularly true what you said last night too, that there are not only different ways in which you can sell out, but they each demand different penalties. Those two commercials provoke different responses, do they not? In this manner, selling out is a reminiscent of cultural offence.. and the severity of the offense of Of Montreal is indicative of the fact that Barnes felt compelled to write that article for Stereogum. He wrote a pre-emptive defense for a serious offence: selling out. I suppose he can write an article conveniently mislabelling what it means to be a sell out and fall short of his own criteria. I think the article is a bit of a farce in that respect.

An aspect of his article that I find a tad ridiculous is that, to my understanding, Barnes designates two camps: capitalism and anarchy. For his understanding of what is anarchy, he looks to the ethos and "impossible" credo of the "pseudo-nihilistic punk rockers of the 70s". To me, this seems ridiculous. As much as the punk ideology drew upon notions of anarchy, it was above all a stylistic movement. As quickly as it started, punk became a deft stylistic impression of anarchism.. and it really had nothing to do with empty anti-capitalistic rhetoric when it came down to it. I don't know whether to laugh or cry when I read Barnes' embittered impression of the result of punk: "now we have all of these half-conceived ideas and idiot philosophies floating around to confuse and alienate us". I mean, god damn, no wonder he's so confused. He's looking to a 30-year-old STYLISTIC movement for political philosophy instead of reading a freaking book. It's like affording currency to the "indie" tag simply by virtue its hefty associations with truth and authenticity. If you do something like that, you're bound to be disappointed to find it's a simply a stylistic movement with Cons, tight pants and inconvenient hair.

I don't deny that there is some unspoken cultural mysticism associated with the idea of the "impoverished artist". As I said to you last night, it's something that has been carried on for centuries upon centuries in the context of painters, sculptors, so on and so forth. I think we are drawn to its association with unadulterated motivation and hopeful creativity - it's a very romantic ideal, without a doubt. But I don't think it's in any means indicative of a desire, innate or otherwise, to keep our favourite artists in poverty, just for the purposes of maintaining that ideal. It is for this reason that I believe that it is not the commercialisation of musical expression which is offensive here. It is the artist's disrespect of their work, their fans and themselves which is offensive.

If you take a step back for a moment, you have to acknowledge how powerful music is. For those who fall in love with music, it is a significant and highly charged love. When we talk about music, our feelings are filled to the brim.. and it is even a struggle to coherently identify what those feelings are for the most part. Even if you look at the fact that, as you pointed out yesterday, we frequently refer to these artists as "ours". It happens all the time. These artists are "ours" because we emotionally connect with their music, words and persona. It's not only a process of personal identification here, but it has to be something to do with unrequited love on a subconscious level. I'm convinced of it. The whole dynamic of the fan-musician relationship is completely redolent of a destructive relationship, where the insecure fan cares too much and the egocentric musician doesn't care enough. Selling out occurs when the artist does not respect the sanctity of the fan's relationship to the creative product. Why do you think fans express such disappointment, bitterness and anger when their artist sells out? It's because it's simply analogous to romantic betrayal.

I think it's the reason why so many of us wish to know the motivations of our artists. We want to know if they are for real. We want to know the artists they loved growing up and the artists they love now. We want to figure out if this is a safe bet.. because otherwise we would be intimately associating with a creative falsehood, motivated by greed and popular glory.

What do you reckon??

Anonymous said...

Funny — just as I began reading this post, the Dandy Warhol's Welcome to the Monkey House started playing in iTunes. How's that for synchronicity? Or is it, perhaps, better thought of as iteration?

At any rate, nice post Lawson. Cheers.