Analysis/Review: Roddy Hart’s 17th Annual Gordon Lecture and the Contemporary American Lyric

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Source: BBC

Analysis/Review: Roddy Hart’s 17th Annual Gordon Lecture and the Contemporary American Lyric 

What a treat to listen to a lecture sprinkled with songs and stories, especially among the beautiful acoustics of Glasgow University’s chapel. After a rather spectacular introduction from Professor Simon Newman, singer-songwriter Roddy Hart gave the 17th Annual Gordon Lecture, organised by university’s Andrew Hook Centre for American Studies. Having collaborated with Kris Kristofferson, released an EP of Dylan covers and found success in the States with a stint on Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show—not to mention running his own radio show for BBC Scotland and hosting Celtic Connections, the BBC Quay Sessions and the Roaming Roots Revue—Hart was well qualified to talk on this subject from a musician’s point of view.

Hart’s talk was a tribute to the great American lyric; to what makes it, in Hart’s words, particularly alluring, otherworldly and cool, especially to those who grew up outside of the United States. Admitting that he lacks an academic education in the history of American culture and music (actually, Hart has a law degree gleaned from within these very walls), Hart made up for this by sheer enthusiasm, celebrating the musical merits of songs from Woody Guthrie to Father John Misty and covering such topics as the journey motif, humour, darkness, nostalgia, politics and death. The talk took the form of a powerpoint, with Roddy speaking, singing snippets of songs and then commenting on their significance in a lucid, passionate way that kept everyone hooked for an hour and a half.

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Bob Dylan / / Source: Rolling Stone

Hart began with the assertion that lyrics are not poetry, or indeed literature of any kind. Lyrics, he claimed, involve respect for structure, rhyme, metre and field (all definitions you could apply to poetry…), a certain knack for a hook, a streak of ingenuity and originality. Like poetry, a great lyric can reshape how we view the world we live in, send ripples through the fabric of reality and inspire us to take action, critically reflect or wallow in grief. The distinction Hart draws between poetry and the lyric prompted a desire to find out what exactly his thoughts are on Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. My own thoughts on this issue have never rested on a single position, and I don’t really know enough about the prize’s history to comment on Dylan’s suitability.  However, there have always been strong connections between lyricists and poets, from the likes of Langston Hughes writing jazz poems during the Harlem Renaissance to Kate Tempest releasing rap albums as well as a novel and poetry collections published by the likes of Picador and Bloomsbury, no less. Hell, what about Leonard Cohen? At the end of the day, all writing is a performance of sorts, regardless of how it’s delivered. I could talk about Roland Barthes here, mention ‘The Death of the Author’, how the reader ‘performs’ the text like a score of music etc etc, but I won’t digress. Basically: sometimes a poem seems built for performance; other times it rests more easily on the page, where the eye follows an intriguing visual form or dance of letters arranged on white space. While poetry can be a two-way street, I’m not sure how well Dylan’s verse works on the page. Admittedly, most of his songs tell interesting stories, but that deceptive simplicity often needs the nuance and expression of Dylan’s voice to draw out the subtler levels of irony, humour, derision or sorrow from straightforward-seeming lyrics. Just my two cents on the matter, though I still like to wallow in ambiguity when it comes to these distinctions.

Hart gives the proviso that his talk is meant to be a working definition of the American lyric, not a comprehensive history. He does, however, mention a few characteristic features. The prominent one, of course, is name-checking: all the best American lyrics will draw on the wealth of states, street names, famous bars and hotels. In doing so, they draw on a tradition, they write themselves into a history of locations, urban legends and folk tales. Hart illustrated this by starting with Paul Simon’s ‘America’, pointing out how the song documents a search for America itself; this idea that America will always be this endless signifier, sliding along the great highway of desire that stretches across desert, country and city, drawing across generations. On the way, the lovers in Simon’s song make the best of their adventure, cooking up stories from the characters on the Greyhound, honing in on material details. It’s this sense of taking the listener on a journey that’s one of the American lyric’s greatest seductions. As Simon sings, “it took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw” the chords soar and there’s that sense of being lifted to somewhere radically elsewhere, an open field, road, desert. The sweet spot between freedom and sorrow, of missing something deep and mysterious, the impossible pursuit.

Hart traces such material details in songs by Kris Kristofferson and Dylan, this sense of a ‘quintessential American aesthetic’ which he quite eloquently describes as a ‘Moby Dick-esque hunt across America’. The whale, ironically, is America itself. The road narrative is central to the American lyric. It’s a romanticised, extravagant sprawl into the dust of the past and glitter of the future, marked by place names which glow with familiar warmth and legendary spirit. Hart argues that this is something specific to the American lyric; that a Scottish equivalent wouldn’t quite have that same epic effect. He even sings a made-up local spin on ‘America’ to prove it; a journey between Edinburgh and Dunoon falls pretty flat in comparison. Of course there’s something special about the land of the free, in all its bright mythology and promise, but it’s not as if Scottish bands haven’t tried it. There’s that famous line from The Proclaimers’ ‘500 Miles’ which immortalises an array of parochial towns ravished by Thatcher, deindustrialisation and eighties recession: “Bathgate no more. Linwood no more. Methil no more. Irvine no more”. Of course there isn’t the same expansive magic, but there is something epic about lyrically connecting the local to broader political discontent. Still, you can’t really compare the Proclaimers to Simon & Garfunkel…or can you?

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Source: lettere-persiane.blogspot.com

Back to America. Hart describes Dylan as the nation’s great scene-setter, effortlessly drawing a sense of the times from the wisping drift of personal narrative, of stories about people and their lives. Details shuffled together like cards and strung along a line of verse. While some singers make their politics clear in the didactic manner of protest, Dylan sets these more intimate tales against the backdrop of cities and an impressionistically vivid sense of history. Hart plays possibly my favourite Dylan song, ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ from the 1975 album, Blood on the Tracks, spending time going over the lyrics to point out the singer’s knack for detail, the narrative journey which documents a succession of relationships, places and jobs. That famous philosophy: you’ve got to keep on keeping on. There’s something more raw here than the cosy, apple-pie fuelled comforts of Kerouac’s road narratives, which always depend on money from back home. You can hear it in the howl of Dylan’s voice, which becomes more a sultry croon in Hart’s version. What does he mean by blue? There’s the blues, there’s the blue of the sky and the ocean—symbols of infinitude. It’s a signifier that shifts as easily as Dylan’s character, from fisherman to cook, as he crosses over the West, learning to see things “from a different point / of view”. Surely this is one the basis for democracy, the meritocratic ideal of fairness upon which the USA was founded: empathy? The ability to openly shift your perspective, to never stay too long in your own shoes. That existential restlessness, set against the backdrop of a shaky political atmosphere, the dustbowl sense of losing one’s bearings in a maelstrom of uncertainty, characterises many of Dylan’s songs and indeed many road narratives throughout literature and American lyric.

You can’t talk about the American lyric without mentioning politics and Hart documents the history of the protest song, from Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Your Land’ to Tracy Chapman’s ‘Talking About a Revolution’: songs that pose an equality of belonging, that document the quiet desperation and struggle that takes place beneath the surface of everyday life. Rather than tangling himself in the barbed reality of contemporary politics, Hart opts to situate his chosen songs in the context of more general themes: the failings of the American dream, social inequality and the oppression of working people, all set against the turning tides of the economic landscape. It’s notable that most of these singers are men, singing about working men, often with reference to some vulnerable lost girl who needs saved. But then you have the likes of Anaïs Mitchell, writing visceral songs of longing and misplaced identity. ‘Young Man in America’ opens with this mythological, sort of monstrous story of birth: “My mother gave a mighty shout / Opened her legs and let me out / Hungry as a prairie dog”. Images of industrial decline, capitalist opulence and landscapes both mythical and pastoral are woven by a voice whose identity is a mercurial slide between human, animal and disembodied call. Skin is shed, belonging is only a shifting possibility. It’s a complex song, with native percussion, brass; moments of towering climax and soft withdrawal. The music mirrors the strange undulations of the American journey from cradle to grave, its dark pitfalls and glittering peaks, the cyclical narratives of the lost and forgotten; the “bright money” and the “shadow on the mountaintop”, the fame of the “young man in America”, a universal identity disseminated across a range of experiences. For this is the myth of the American Everyman, and Mitchell deconstructs it beautifully.

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Gillian Welch / / Source: Born to Listen

On the subject of female songwriters, I was very pleased that Gillian Welch and Lucinda Williams got a mention in Hart’s talk. The self-destructive sentiment of Welch’s ‘Wrecking Ball’ reminds us that the experience of being ground down by the relentless demands of a marketised society isn’t confined to men alone. Welch’s ‘Everything is Free’, not mentioned in the talk though highly relevant, makes this clear. It’s a song about artists will go on making their art even if they won’t get paid, and the tale of how capitalism discovered this and cashed in on its fact: “Someone hit the big score, they figured it out / That we’re gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay”. Like Dylan, Welch finds herself winding up on the road, working in bars, working hard and regretting being enslaved to, well, The Man. ‘Everything is Free’ is a message of both despondency and hope, crafting this sense of the beauty of song itself as protest and freedom even as the structure closes in: “Every day I wake up, hummin’ a song / But I don’t need to run around, I just stay at home”.

Hart mentions how the American lyric provides an escape to those who find themselves trapped in the smallness of their lives. You might live in a nondescript town slap-bang in the middle of Scotland, where the musical climate favours chart music blasted from bus-stop ringtones, but then aged fourteen you discover Dylan or Springsteen and suddenly America opens up its vast, sparkly vista, from East Coast to West. This seems to be Hart’s trajectory, as his career—from the first tour with Kristofferson to his continued promotion of transatlantic connections—closely follows an American strain of songwriting. My mum used to listen to Welch’s Time (The Revelator) album over and over again on long car journeys, so the lyrics to all those road songs are burned in my brain like tracks in vinyl, superimposed with endless visions of the M8 stretching out before me… It was only a couple of years ago that I found out Time (The Revelator) was released in 2001; I’d always assumed this stuff was ancient, the seventies at least. Maybe because Welch just has this knack for writing timeless songs; songs about heartbreak, loneliness and restless desire that reach back into the comforts of the past even as the journey itself is long and hollow, the destination vague as the blurred sign on the front of a train.

I guess this raises a broader question which Hart’s talk touched upon: the politics and poetics of nostalgia. There weren’t opportunities for questions afterwards, but if there were I might have asked Hart whether nostalgia is a necessary condition for American self-reinvention. It’s a pretty relevant  question right now, with much of Trump’s whole appeal based on the nostalgic vision of a vaguely industrial golden age of capitalism—a vision which is obviously the smokescreen for whatever chaotic ideologies are at work beneath the surface. The American lyric can set up this romanticised vision, only to break it apart; reveal its seedy underbelly, its failings, the disastrous gap between identified goals and actual means of attainment. Yet throughout the cynicism, there’s always that restless desire to continue, to keep on keeping on. Hart compares it to the green light in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), a novel significantly indebted to music (jazz, of course). The final line of that novel captures that past/present lyrical impulse so well: ‘so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past’.

Which leads to the question: what about genre? Is the American lyric necessarily the domain of indie folk rockers? What about commercial music and pop? Can a pop artist deconstruct the American dream and earn a play in the lyrical family tree if they make money off their record and earn fame from MTV? Hart engages with Father John Misty as an example of how the American lyric can use humour to deconstruct the nation’s ideologies of progress and meritocracy, at the same time as retaining a post-postmodern self-awareness of identity politics, a meta-awareness of his own dabbling in ironic coolness. His very name evokes a sort of New Age gospel figure, a preacher for the times, whose stage is the television set or Twitter feed instead of the old-fashioned soapbox. Hart describes songs such as ‘I’m Writing a Novel’ and ‘Bored in the USA’ (obviously a riff on Springsteen’s classic) as depicting the ‘American dream for the millennials’. I’ve written about Misty extensively already on this blog (specifically, on his metamodernist tendencies), so I won’t go into detail here, but suffice to say I agree that FJM represents something special about contemporary cultural critique. It’s that blend of irony and sincerity, an exaggerated interrogation of the romanticism and the Gen X postmodernism of yore; the oscillation between raw subjective experience, political critique and the cool facade of self-deprecating wit. A constant juggling of ‘candour and self-mockery’, as Dorian Lynskey puts it. FJM notoriously got into a tiff during an interview with Radio 6 Music veterans, Radcliffe and Maconie. Aside from all the awkward sarcasm, what strikes me about this interview is the mentioning of kitsch merchandise objects: oven-gloves, jeggings. Hart explores a bit of kitsch lyric in the likes of Randy Newman, but I think FJM blends especially well that jaded sense of millennial despondence alongside tracks that can feel like rollicking simple narratives or epics of history on a 13-minute scale that gives Springsteen’s marathon tunes a run for their money. He pushes his stuff to the edge of the cheesy and cringe-worthy, exposing how all conviction has that shadow side of kitsch, even the most authentic lyrics—kitsch is somehow the cheap taste of someone else’s experience, the trick is to make it meaningful, and not just another imitation, a plastic model of the Empire State Building.

But Misty isn’t the only singer-songwriter deconstructing the American dream, exploring how both its poetic promise and jingoistic glory play out on a personal level. What about Ryan Adams, whose songs have that alt-country appeal of the restless bard? ‘New York, New York’, from his 2001 album Gold, opens with a Dylanesque lyric about shuffling “through the city on the 4th of July”, brandishing a “firecracker” that’ll break “like a rocket who was makin’ its way / To the cities of Mexico. The clean rhymes and ballad-like lilt of guitar are also very Dylanesque. But at some point I’ve got to stop making comparisons to Dylan, because ultimately this is reductive; it’s cheap and lazy music journalism. I do think, however, the ease with which we make these comparisons reveals something interesting about our generic assumptions. Guy has a guitar, sings melancholy songs about America and his place within it, a smart knack for a lyrical twist, occasionally picks up a harmonica? Instant Dylan; their careers overshadowed by a giant. (Note: I guess a similar thing happens with very talented female folk singers—the likes of Laura Marling—being compared to Joni Mitchell). But even Dylan doesn’t monopolise the American lyric. He might have a Nobel Prize, but this doesn’t crown him King of the Lyric Alone (or maybe it does?); we’ve got to tease out what exactly we mean by this term and how relevant it is in the fragmentary scene of contemporary music. Think with Dylan, but beyond Dylan.

Conor Oberst, formerly of the band Bright Eyes, is an artist who’s been branded with Dylan comparisons throughout his career (an extensive career at that; the precocious Nebraskan recorded his first album, Water, aged just 13). Sasha Frere-Jones in the New Yorker condenses many of my own feelings on the Oberst/Dylan comparisons: ‘Dylan is armour-plated, even when singing about love; Oberst is permanently open to pain, wonder, and confusion.’ Oberst is in many ways a liminal figure: cutting it out on the folk and country circuit  (Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch appear on previous records) while hanging and collaborating with indie rock bands (The Felice Brothers, First Aid Kit, Dawes), flirting with punk (The Desaparecidos) and fitting with some comfort within the elastic nineties/noughties stratosphere of emo. Frere-Jones describes Oberst as a ‘poet-prince’, again opening debate on that binary between poetry and lyric that Hart sets up but that nonetheless remains slippery and problematic. Where Dylan espouse the solid wisdom of a sage or wandering bard, Oberst has a reticent, warbling quality that rises to epiphany but admits failure and the graceless fall into existential aporia. He wails like Dylan wails, but many of his songs have a fragility and surrealism that doesn’t quite match up with Dylan’s more assured narrative balladry. So in that sense, he’s a lyric poet in the more subdued, Keatsian manner, exploring the self in all its fragmentary, perplexing existence.

But he’s also very much an American lyricist. In his ‘mature’ career, Oberst hasn’t shied away from more directly tackling political themes alongside more personal songs. 2005’s ‘When the President Talks to God’ rips to shreds George W. Bush’s policies. Comprising a series of questions addressed to an audience, it more closely follows the form of a traditional protest song, laced with bitter satire: “When the president talks to God / Do they drink near beer and go play golf / While they pick which countries to invade / Which Muslim souls still can be saved?”. This is definitely a song to be performed, on a wide open stage or indeed to the even wider audience accessing broadcasts of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, where he performed the song in 2005. Then there’s the angry, crunchy southern kick of ‘Roosevelt Room’, off Oberst’s solo record, Outer South (2009). Oberst’s later work isn’t as playfully weird and surreal as his early bedroom stuff, sure, but increasingly he masters the power of allusion that characterises American lyric, in Hart’s sense of the term: “Go ask Hunter Thompson / Go ask Hemingway’s ghost”. He’s addressing someone to be critiqued, wrenching them off their political pedestal: “Hope you haven’t got too lazy / I know you like your apple pie / Cause the working poor you’ve been pissing on / Are doing double shifts tonight”. There’s that apple pie again, symbol of steadfast Americana, fuel of the nation, the well-lighted place of a diner—a place of domesticity, stability and, let’s face it, commercial comfort. Oberst cynically dismisses the well-nourished white middle class politician, recalling a generalised story of poverty from material details: “And I’d like to write my congressman / But I can’t afford a stamp”.

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Source: pinterest

Then there’s the frontier motif, the sense of America as a place of deep mystery as well as self-created landscape. Experiments with Eastern and Navajo cultures. Bright Eyes’ 2007 album, Cassadaga, with its album art requiring a spectral decoder to be fully appreciated, its envisioning of the singer as mystic or medium, channelling psychic forces through song. Cassadaga is very much a journey. The opening track, ‘Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)’ involves an extended spoken word sample of some kind of very American mystic who begins by setting us in the ‘centre of energy’, Cassadaga’s ‘wonderful grounds that have vortexes’, moving us through astral projections of a ‘new era and life’ that is changing, a message of hope, doubling back on the uncanny sense that ‘Cassadaga might be just a premonition of a place you’re going to visit’. Cassadaga is a real place, a spiritualist camp set somewhere between Daytona and Orlando, known as the ‘Psychic Capital of the World’. By naming his album Cassadaga, Oberst isn’t just name-dropping in typical hipster fashion, honouring local identity nor casting back nostalgically to a familiar place; he’s attempting to channel the energy of this location, interrogate its spirit, draw out its various psychic possibilities for the present. He sings of attempts to detoxify his life, of former affairs, of lost soul singers and the pursuit of a sense of belonging.

‘Lime Tree’ is one of the most beautiful songs Oberst has written. It’s a composite tracing of impressions drawn from various experiences, both personal or secondhand. While much of Cassadaga follows an upbeat, distinctly country sound in the manner of 2005’s I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, ‘Lime Tree’ closes the record with a dreamy, wistful serenity that recalls the likes of ‘Lua’, ‘Something Vague’ and ‘Easy/Lucky/Free’. Accompanied by angelic female vocals, ‘Lime Tree’ is ethereal, the guitar strumming minimal though following a certain continuous loop. Pale and lush strings contribute to the sense of being pulled downstream, giving yourself up to the languorous current. Ostensibly, it’s a song about abortion, about a struggling relationship: “Since the operation I heard you’re breathing just for one / Now everything’s imaginary, especially what you love”. But as in all good poetry, the beauty of the lyrics on ‘Lime Tree’ is their movement from specific experience to a vaguely spiritual voyage that gestures towards ending but instead finds the open plains of abyss, always suspended in paradox and ambiguity, the fault-lines between life/death, hope/despair, dream/reality: “So pleased with a daydream that now living is no good / I took off my shoes and walked into the woods / I felt lost and found with every step I took”. Home is a tidal wave, a churning wind, a shifting sand, a fragment.

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Source: crystalinks

America’s great confessional poet, Sylvia Plath, also explored mysticism, and her writing is rich with strange imagery, not to mention all those Tarot allusions in Ariel. In The Bell Jar (1963), the fig tree is the novel’s dark and mysterious heart, this vivid image that sprawls its symbolism through the text, a figure for existential paralysis: ‘I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story […] I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose’. We might think of the connection between the term ‘roots’ and ‘roots rock’, its rhizomatic sprawl of influence never quite settling on a home even as a sense of home and locality is supposedly the music’s grounding purpose. Roots, of course, are always growing. The lime tree is an image plucked from a dream, but its significance is less clear in Oberst’s song than the fig tree in Plath’s narrative. Perhaps more than most contemporary songwriters working within a lyric tradition, Oberst is content to write from a position of uncertainty, in gaps and pieces of affect and narrative. The sound of his voice suspended over those gentle strings and strums is enough to make tremors in your chest, as if the slow vortex of another world were opening its mouth like the parting of the sea in someone else’s biblical or drug-enhanced dream: “I can’t sleep next to a stranger when I’m coming down.” The way of the lyric; so often the way of the lonely. Even as ‘Lime Tree’ might be a love song, it opens itself towards ending, loss, death: “don’t be so amazing or I’ll miss you too much”; there can never be plenitude in the journey: “everything gets smaller now the further that I go”. Bittersweet doesn’t quite cut it. It’s too subtle for that, a softly shimmering lullaby goodbye to the world, a retreat and a return, just like Nick Carraway’s vision of beating on but back into the past. The passage of an everyday spiritual pilgrim, the way we all are in life, our faces fading in the ink-blot of photographs. We turn back to look at ourselves through others, through words, just as Dylan notes how the girl in the “topless bar” “studied the lines on my face”.

A voyage through nostalgia, a quest for identity, belonging, an escape from something and a return, a desiring pursuit without end, a lust for life and ease into death; a twist of humour, a narrative of hope, aspiration and the failures that draw us back into the dustbowl. The American lyric is all of these things and more; its boundaries perhaps are pliable as the nylon strings on somebody’s battered acoustic guitar. Maybe it all culminates in madness and absurdity. For every One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, you’ve got The Felice Brothers’ ‘Jack at the Asylum’, a rollicking satire on the madness of contemporary American life which trades in richly surreal and absurd imagery to render the accelerated pace of this madness, crossing history in the blink of a screen flicker: “And I’ve seen your pastures of green / The crack whores, the wars on the silver screen”. Pastoral America is always already contaminated by an originary violence. Maybe the best American lyric depicts such realisations through personal stories, the relationships and encounters set against and embedded within wider structural phenomena, the recessions and closures and urbanisations. The Felice Brothers remind us, however, that all of this is secondhand, aspirational narratives passed down to us through screen culture, advertising: “You give me dreams to dream / Popcorn memories and love”. Once again, there’s that fluctuation between an earnest love of country to an embittered sense of its very elusiveness, the distant static shimmer of success whose failed pursuit we watch ourselves experience through the mediating comforts of daily life—the popcorn pharmakon poisons and cures for (post)modern existence, as calorific as they are nutritionally empty.

But once again, genre. String off a handful of names from Hart’s Americana playlist and you’ll be pressed to find anything that falls outside the folk-rock camp, even as its boundaries remain pretty permeable. Yet what of hiphop? Isn’t hiphop, in a sense, the great alternative American folk lyric? Rap is it’s own kind of poetry, after all. You might think of someone like Kendrick Lamar as an American lyric writer, working from a different generic background from Hart’s examples, but nonetheless telling the story of contemporary USA from the streets to the level of the visionary, just like Dylan did. Lamar even has a track called ‘Good Morning America’: “we dusted off pulled the bullet out our heads / Left a permanent scar, for the whole world to recognise / California, economics, pay your taxes bitch”. Once again, that originary violence, the scar of identity. Lamar works back from the wounding.

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Source: pinterest

My knowledge of hiphop is far too limited to discuss it in any detail, but thinking it through  the idea of American lyric prompted me onto the figure of Lana Del Rey, who often uses hiphop production techniques, from trap beats to muted, stadium echoes. I hate to bang on about oor Lana again (see articles here & here), but irresistibly she’s a shining example of a mercurial musician, drawn to the sweet dark chocolate centre of American melancholy. LDR performs a kaleidoscopic array of identities, just as Dylan often wore a mask that veiled itself in the confessional sincerity of the beaten-down worker, drinker, lover, escaping to the Mid-West alone. Yet while America’s great bard more or less got away with it, Lana has been constantly lambasted for her artifice and supposed inauthenticity. Which begs the question: what do we even mean by authenticity? Is only the white male—your Princes, Bowies and Eminems—allowed to strut in the performative identity parade? Both LDR and Lady Gaga have been lambasted for their supposed fakeness. There are obviously complex questions of racial, class and gender identity which I don’t have time to cover here. Sometimes, a musician is lauded for their alter ego (and doesn’t alter ego itself imply a certain surrender to the patriarchal ideology of masculinity?)—take Beyoncé’s hugely successful Sasha Fierce—and other times, it takes the invisible tide of the internet to swell in support for those critiqued by other forms of media.

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Source: YouTube

My friend Louise is always comparing LDR’s work to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novelistic visions of 1920s America, and while this might seem a bit extravagant, there’s something to be said for the way Lana seamlessly evokes the spirit of the jazz age, the consumer paradise of the 1950s and the hipsterdom of millennial Brooklyn in the through the poetry of song. Is this just retroculture, in the sense of recycled kitsch and the twenty-first century urge towards nostalgia explored in Simon Reynolds’ excellent Retromania (2011)? Is there something pathological in Lana’s obsession with the past, a symptom of a broken psyche or worse, a broken generation? Perhaps. But there is something transformative and subversive about LDR’s retrovision, even as it may be critiqued for indulging in vintage gender roles as much as vintage styles (framing yourself as a sort of white-trash ‘gangster Nancy Sinatra’ is always gonna invite a certain feminist controversy, let’s face it).

One of Hart’s recent examples of the American lyric came from The National (even the band name evokes questions of what it means to be American), with their song ‘Sorrow’ from 2010’s dark and trembling High Violet. I’m interested in how this song apostrophises sorrow in the manner of a great Romantic lyric. We might think of Keats’ ‘Ode to Melancholy’ or Charlotte Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets, the eighteenth-century cult of sensibility remade for jaded and alienated millennials. Sorrow once again invokes that Platonic idea of the pharmakon as both poison and cure. We can wallow passively in sorrow, as The National sing: “I live in a city sorrow built / It’s in my honey, it’s in my milk”: it’s a trapped landscape, a petrified terrain in which the self can only slip deeper into isolation; but it’s also milk and honey, a kind of temporary nourishment to a darker psychic scar. As Smith so eloquently puts it in the final lines of 1785’s ‘Sonnet Xxxii: To Melancholy’: O Melancholy!–such thy magic power, / That to the soul these dreams are often sweet, / And soothe the pensive visionary mind!’. Sorrow provides a toxic tonic for the soul, a lubricant for paralysis that eventually leads us back towards the existential road. Life goes on.

Lana Del Rey is fixated on sorrow. Blue, she admits, is her favourite colour, her favourite “tone of song”. Her songs are always hyper aware of the transient beauty of life, even as they lust after death. On the soundtrack song she did for Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby, she worries “Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?” ‘Video Games’ is a melancholy ballad for the contemporary relationship, a lush, brooding expression of love in the time of Call of Duty. Roddy Hart even did a cover of it. Her songs have titles like ‘The Blackest Day’, ‘Cruel World’, Sad Girl’, ‘West Coast’, ‘Old Money’, ‘American’, ‘Gods & Monsters’ and ‘Summertime Sadness’. All these titles evoke the Daisy Buchanan sad girl trope at the same time as gesturing towards the broader existential melancholy of America itself in the manner of Springsteen; with sometimes the detached urban cool of Lou Reed, other times the genuine, trembling passion of Billie Holiday. The video for ‘National Anthem’ restyles Lana as a Jackie O type married to a young, good-looking black president, with 1950s iconography spliced among pastel-hazed footage of the pair lolling around in love, sniffing roses, smiling, looking good as a Vanity Fair shoot. The video begins with her character singing Marilyn Monroe’s famous ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’ routine. She re-envisions JFK’s assassination, with a spoken word piece on top. She’s imagining alternative political futures even as she casts back to the past. There’s that lyric sense of wonder and ambiguity, of being lost in time.

It’s this layering of styles, scenes and cultural iconography that makes Lana’s work way more complex than most of what else fills the charts. Sure, it’s great that a positive message of bodily empowerment (Beyoncé feminism) is doing the rounds just now, but that shouldn’t mean that those who fall outside this category are anti-feminist or ignorant to gender identity politics. When all the R&B pop stars are prancing around proclaiming their sexual freedom, dominating men in various flavours of BDSM allusion, getting all the looks in the club or whatever, LDR is crying diamond dust tears into her Pepsi cola, draped naked in an American flag. Her videos, songs and artwork engage with cinematic discourse, high fashion photography and cultural history in a manner that’s intellectual interesting as much as it is affective and aesthetically satisfying. In a sense, she’s meaningfully evoking the past in order to say something timeless about the American dream and the objectified position of the ‘white trash’ woman under its mast of starry glory. In another sense, she’s indulging in a postmodern recycling of historical styles: constantly name-dropping, from James Dean to Springsteen, Lolita—perhaps the great American road novel not written by an American—and David Lynch’s lush, dark suburban epic, Blue Velvet. Despite the performance and ventriloquy of figures and archetypes from twentieth-century cultural history, she retains a sincere expression of melancholy, heartbreak and longing that’s personal but also strives towards rendering the more universal experiences of womanhood in certain communities. All the controversy surrounding Lana in relation to racial politics, class politics and sexual politics exists because her work is provocative, problematic and complex, like any good American lyric.

One reason that Roddy Hart was such a good choice to deliver this lecture is that he’s had experience writing new melodies for Robert Burns poems for Homecoming Scotland. Why is this relevant to the American lyric? So much of the lyric tradition, in all its forms, is based on that sense of romanticism, visionary wonder, self-exploration; the rendering of universal experience through personal narratives, the subjective telling of a story, the trade in imagery and sound and careful arrangement. Burns was a sort of rock star poet of his times, and not just because he was a bit of a cheeky philanderer. He toured around, worked as a labourer and farmer; he talked to many people, opened himself to influence. It’s this diversity that continues to mark the American lyric in the twenty-first century; the way that Father John Misty can sing a very ironic and playful song on late-show tv, about a man checking social media on his death bed, with the conviction of a crooning Leonard Cohen; accompanied by a gospel choir whose voice raises Misty’s ballad to a level of epic, overly extravagant grandeur that still somehow works, remains genuinely compelling beyond the initial sarcasm. The way Detroit’s angelic avant-indie hero, Sufjan Stevens, can ambitiously and patriotically plan to write an album for every state in America, then turn on the project, calling it “such a joke“. The way that Suzanne Vega, in ‘Tom’s Diner’, sings about a familiar American institution, the fabled diner—or Well-Lighted Place, as Hemingway put it—with the simple verse structure of an Imagist poem made narrative, sketching brief impressions of the myriad people she encounters in a public space. It feels cinematic, with deep eighties bass, bursts of brass and string-like synths, but also has that emergent sense of a postmodern folk, looking at the world from the bottom-up, catching everyday lives and stories in song. Even when irony remains the chief aesthetic order of the day, the lyric doesn’t have to be sucked into self-referential abyss. The best singer-songwriters continue to channel the American lineage through a romantic strain as much as a humorous one, inflecting songs with sorrow, joy and vitally that lust for something more—sometimes beyond life itself, sometimes just the restless possibilities of the road. Singing alone in the Glasgow Uni chapel on a Thursday evening, Roddy Hart rekindled some love for all that.

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American Lyric playlist:

Being a Student Again: The First Semester

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It’s not all about realising you can get 10% off at Topshop again (although my ID photo is so bad this year I’m no sure I can brandish it in public). I didn’t know what to expect, going back to uni after a year out. It all happened so fast. Working for over a year as a full time waitress, doing 35-55 hour weeks, I didn’t really give myself the headspace to prepare myself for what uni entails. Despite knowing for several months that I had secured my place, a Masters in MLitt Modernities at Glasgow Uni just seemed something far in the distance, the uncertain plane which I would embark upon after an endless summer.

No matter how it feels at the time, summer is never endless. August was a strange old month, and horrible, tragic things kept happening around me. Amidst all that, it didn’t seem real, making my way through the infernal labyrinth of MyCampus; applying for scholarships, spending inordinate time staring at screens again, making lists of things to be done. I found myself in a room up high in the Boyd Orr building, listening to the inimitable and infectiously enthusiastic Rob Maslen give a speech about the strange history of these hallowed walls; being introduced to the university as if it were the first time all over again.

It is weird going back to the same university after a year out, especially if you’ve not gone far. I walked up the hill listening to Tigermilk feeling blissfully like a total Glasgow cliché and it was like nothing had changed at all; it was my first seminar of the semester and I felt bright and hopeful. Glasgow gifted us with a particularly gorgeous autumn, trees bronzing languidly into darkening violet as twilight fell and I was still sitting by the fountain, making notes on poetry. I tried to take walks in Kelvingrove as often as possible. Quite quickly, however, the daylight ran out. Nights drew in. Still stuck in waitressing mode, such thing as a sleeping pattern proving an elusive remnant lost somewhere back in 2015, I found myself going to sleep at 5am every night, often staying in the library till everyone on the floor had left and the lights kept going out automatically. There I was, alone in the dark in front of a dull-glowing screen (though one must note the upgrade in PCs at Glasgow Uni Library, which are much preferable). It’s easy to spiral into that maddening routine, trying to do all the reading, make notes on everything. I’ve never been a meticulous note-taker, not by a long shot, but I like to handwrite things and have a tangible record of ideas and theorists and possible avenues for further study.

I would walk home at 2am, stumbling tired-eyed through Kelvinside, hoping for a glimpse of the river, some tangible reminder of nature. How long had it been since I’d seen the sea? During reading week, I allowed myself a cheeky day trip to Arran, which felt so unreal it was almost magic. The days passed and ideas started to percolate in my head. The power of procrastination unleashed itself again. I did more creative writing in the past three months than probably I’ve done all year. I guess the more you read, the more you want to write. I sat on level 11 and watched the sunset over Park Circus, making airy, vague notes about queer temporality and thing theory on a 60p sketchpad. I went to seminars and was reminded of how nice it is to listen to people share a subject, to listen to experts talk with passion about something they must have covered a thousand times before and yet still they can find fresh things to say about it. To actually talk to said experts about such interesting topics (instead of merely serving them glasses of wine and plates of fish, as the Oran Mor waitress will often do for GU academics). Although a bit scary at first (not least because I had a screenwriter and published author in one of my seminars!), it was nice to actually have proper formal discussions about books again. Often we veered slightly off-topic, with Trump becoming the proverbial wall against which we hit our heads in frustration, but everything felt prescient, useful. I went to visiting speaker seminars with the likes of Stephen Ross, Graeme Macdonald and Darren Anderson, who talked about all manner of interesting topics: Beckett’s invention of the teenager, petroculture and the politics of space and architecture. Having been at Glasgow Uni four and a half years now, I was still struggling to find half the rooms and buildings I needed to get to.

I went to a couple of nights at The Poetry Club in Finnieston and actually read poems aloud to real humans. Got a few wee things published here and there. Went to a ceilidh. Realised that I want to do lots and lots of creative writing and really try and learn from people. Started writing music reviews for RaveChild which has been really rewarding, not least because it’s encouraged me to broaden my musical horizons and go to more gigs. Started tweeting again. I managed to go to a few Creative Writing Society workshops, wrote a collaborative sonnet and played around with tarot cards. Went to Creative Conversations at the Chapel and saw very smart and fascinating people talk about writing: Amy Liptrot, Liz Lochhead, Mallachy Tallack, for example. Developed many creative crushes on various academics.

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Necronaut: Tom McCarthy looking fit in flip flops. Image Source: Fitzcarraldo

My stress levels tend to rise in tandem with the library’s rising busyness and so I stopped going altogether about a month ago. I’ve more or less forgotten what sunlight is, except for the wee slant that comes through the window of the building in Professors’ Square where every Thursday we had our Modern Everyday seminar. I sit in bed everyday and try and write and write. I spent the first four weeks of this semester trying to read a section from The Derrida Wordbook everyday, until my brain started to melt a bit too much and I was thinking in riddles. One day I was so tired I woke up at 10.46 for an 11am seminar but somehow still made it on time, looking like something the cat had dragged in. I tried to get my head round Blanchot, and even went to a reading group where we poured over The Space of Literature and maybe I came out with some sense of the link between writing and death. I wrote reflective journals for my core course seminars and every time came back to Tom McCarty references. The man and his ideas are just so seductive.

Coming to the end of my first semester as a postgrad student, I’m not sure how I feel. I didn’t wash my hair for nearly four weeks. On the one hand, my brain feels heavier, I’m exhausted, probably much less fit; I’ve lost contact with a few friends. On the other, I’ve got ideas all the time, I’m meeting new people, I can understand a little bit of Heidegger. I’m extremely lucky to be able to study at all, especially on such a well-run, exciting course like Modernities.

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Cutlery: an everlasting source of inspiration

Things I miss about waitressing:

  1. Being on my feet all day. Coming home feeling like an honest hard day’s work has been done, that I really earned that massive block of chocolate.
  2. Gossip. Constant streams of salacious stories.
  3. The visceral fuck-strewn quality of hospitality patter.
  4. Unlimited access to coffee at the point of need.
  5. Making strangers happy through simple acts of kindness.
  6. Being with friends all day and plotting grand schemes.
  7. Minor dramas.
  8. Telling ghost stories to tourists.
  9. Having a reason to put makeup on in the morning/having a reason to get up in the morning before 10.
  10. Spontaneous drinking.
  11. That amazing post-coffee rush feeling when you know your break is due and you’ve got a good book on you.
  12. Finishing a shift and leaving it at the door for a Netflix binge.
  13. Meeting new people more or less constantly.
  14. Having actual muscles from plate carrying.
  15. Playing the game of concocting life stories for strangers.
  16. Teamwork! (which is sorely missed on an English Lit degree…)
  17. Solving completely unsolvable problems, like trying to find and polish 50 champagne flutes in five minutes, or sourcing pathologically evasive salt shakers, or convincing the kitchen not to slaughter you because your table’s arrived 45 minutes late, just in time to clash with every other function in the building.
  18. Unexpectedly deep conversations about love, life, literature, music, family, mental illness, travel, astrophysics, the ethics of illustration, Tumblr, queer theory, feminism, television, childhood memories and sleep deprivation all while polishing cutlery.
  19. The thrill of days off.

Going part-time, I still get some of these fun things, and less of the bad things. Maybe that’s a nice balance. The Christmas period is always a test for our sanity and endurance. Still, hopefully the feeling of handing in my essays will get me through the rest of the season, and if not god knows I have enough books to read to escape into! Maybe I should tidy my room first.

On Finishing University

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Well yesterday I handed in my final essays: the last pieces of coursework ever in my undergraduate degree. I expected to feel triumphant but instead I felt a little empty and sad and probably nostalgic. After all those years and sleepless nights and thousands of words painstakingly wrought out on laptop screens, it all boils down to two more essays and three exams. And then it’s over.

Photo from Fresher's Week!
Photo from Fresher’s Week!

It’s difficult to know where to begin with reflecting about my university experience. Everything is usually divided between academic and social life. Employers and scholars, politicians and journalists all frequently debate which of the two is most useful for getting a job. Any careers event you attend will churn out the hackneyed refrain that ‘university isn’t just about academia’. They encourage you to get involved in societies, sports clubs, volunteering, student media. And all this is great, but we mustn’t completely neglect the whole reason we’re at university – some of us paying thousands of pounds a year to do so – to learn. And this learning isn’t all about getting a job (not for me at least), but about learning for education’s sake – for widening your perspective on the world.

The first essay I had to write was on Descartes for Level 1 philosophy. I believe the question was something like ‘Should we be worried by Descartes’ scepticism?’. This kind of question was a whole new ball-game for me. I was used to plain old terminology like ‘Discuss’, ‘to what extent’ and ‘examine/evaluate’. Not should we be worried? Should we? Are philosophical thought experiments really that important? Of course, the essay question was roundly subjected to confusion and piss-take amongst my fellow first year students, but I suppose it was a good way into a career in philosophy. You know, it was the kind of question that makes you think, that challenges your assumptions about what an essay should do. It’s easy to say that now, but at the time I was pulling my hair out. I remember maybe the worst library session I’ve ever had was one rainy Saturday afternoon, where I stared at a blank screen for four hours straight, glancing from book to book and desperately Google searching everything I meticulously typed up, in case it was similar to something else that had been written.

First years are constantly subjected to sermons on the sins of plagiarism. Whilst this is of course a vital academic lesson, it also makes essay-writing for the paranoid nigh on impossible. I remember for my English Literature essay, I decided to scour the internet for every form of critical interpretation available on my primary texts, just to check that I wasn’t repeating the same arguments as everyone else. I had still to learn that plagiarism is more about intellectual integrity, about learning to reference properly and using existing sources in an original way, than coming up with something that is wholly unique. One thing you learn from English Literature – in fact, probably any arts subject – is that the notion of pure originality is somewhat a myth. And that’s actually liberating, because it takes away the equation of creative genius; you’re suddenly allowed to see how authors frequently influence/borrow/steal/subvert one another’s ideas, and you no longer have to imagine essay-writing as an outpouring of wonderful, effortless analysis. It’s allowed to be a difficult process, built up from hours of reading, planning and collated note-taking. Not just something you fire out in an hour at the back of a high school English class.

To the eighteen-year-old me, that Saturday in the library, I wasn’t quite acquainted with all this. I was sitting next to a boy who was typing away furiously, producing what looked like three essays in the space of a few hours (the time it took me to write one paragraph that I eventually cut from the essay).

Philosophy, to be fair, is a subject notoriously confusing when it comes to essays. It shouldn’t be; it’s just that a philosophy essay is distinct from other kinds of critical analysis that I was familiar with through my hitherto social-sciency background. That tutorial we had, waiting to get our essays back, was really hellish. Everyone was telling each other how badly their friends in other tutorials had done. How harsh the marking was. Nobody knew what a philosophy essay was meant to be. We all expected D’s.

When my tutor read out my student number and I went up to collect my essay, I have never been so pleasantly surprised at a grade. An A3! I can tell you, that was the first and hardest earned A3 I have ever received at university.

The end of first year
The end of first year

Looking back, I think I probably spent most of my first two years at university in a vague state of panic. The thing is, most of the time you have no idea what you’re doing and what’s expected at you (I still don’t, but that’s now a good thing – again, liberating). There are rarely any rigid guidelines, especially in a subject like English Literature, and initially that seems terrifying. You are suddenly surrounded with all these people who went to better schools, all these people who’ve read The Complete Works of Shakespeare and can quote Byron and Shelley off the top of their heads. I would spend whole days in my little dorm room trying to get my head around basic terminology like iambic pentameter, chiasmus, ode, Ottava Rima, trochees, lyrics. I’m still terrible at counting metre in poetry, even though I have a background in music and am perfectly capable of keeping time when there are notes and staves involved. But I like to think that I’ve finally found some kind of ‘footing’ in the mountainous landscape of centuries of literature that I was first confronted with that sunny September in 2011.

As with anything, a big part of university is trial and error. You are going to do better under the guidance of some tutors more than others. You are going to write essays that you aren’t very sure of, and sometimes this will pay off, and sometimes it won’t. There are essays that you feel genuinely proud of, not even for the grade but because you know that all the research that went into them widened your intellectual horizons, and all that editing really did pay off in terms of style. It’s nice when you can read back an essay and not cringe at your choice of phrasing, or all those hiccups in grammar and punctuation. There are going to be nights in the library where you get the fright of your life from the tannoid telling you the reception desk is closing. There are going to be times when the library makes you sick, stressed, exhausted. Like when I had to sit next to a man who was eating raw, mud-covered mushrooms straight from the punnet and dipping them in hummus; or the time when the only computer I could find was next to someone who was licking and slurping the oily remains of his spaghetti from the bottom of a massive plastic tub. Times when there are tears involved; either yours or someone else’s. Fights witnessed and blows exchanged; where else but in the sleep-deprived environment of a university library would two people start brawling over a grubby old Dell with a greasy keyboard?

But then there are the best times, the late nights and early mornings and holidays when the library is lovely and quiet. You are free to roam the endless shelves and pick the desk on level 11 that looks out over a beautiful city view. When you finish an essay and print it and the paper is still warm in your hands as you leave to hand it in. When you stumble across a book that you weren’t exactly looking for, but it’s on long-term loan and looks very interesting.

I guess the semesters go so quickly that you hardly notice the time slipping. Sometimes, they seem like little footnotes to a long and formidable summer, with nothing to do but work and plough through the reading list and wish you had more money. If I could go back and do one thing I guess it would be making more use of my time. But then, I don’t regret all the evenings I spent immersed in journal articles and books, because that’s what’s shaped my mind. Sure, I might not have a degree with immediate career prospects beyond journalism or teaching, but I wouldn’t swap my education for the world. And I’d recommend Glasgow Uni English Lit to anyone, especially because it’s so steeped in critical perspectives and literature beyond the obvious canon. Where else would you start off a second-year semester reading Martin McDonagh’s gruesome play The Pillowman, or have a fourth-year seminar on Gone Girl and a course on Urban Spaces which divides its programme under mysterious headings like ‘Airport’ and ‘Shopping Mall’ rather than the tired titles you see across typical course Moodles. My degree (well, let’s hope I actually get it!) hasn’t just been about Shakespeare and Dickens and Austen, though they have all quite rightly featured. It’s about expanding the canon, and helping you sharpen as well as complicate and reflexively challenge your critical approach to all literature.

Last year’s exam revision
If anything, I've learned to keep a slightly tidier desk.
If anything, I’ve learned to keep a slightly tidier desk.

On Tuesday morning, it was spring all of a sudden. I walked to campus feeling warm and happy, remembering the first spring I spent in the city. All those daffodils and the cherry blossoms around Hillhead, and the cheerful experience of the semester ending, everyone gathering for picnics at Botanic Gardens. Optimistically sleeveless, I sat on a stone by the Kelvin River reading Keats, feeling like this is what university is best at. The kind of magical experience unfortunately made cliché by campus films. When you’re in the sunshine reading poetry and you’re about to go in for one of your last tutorials. Sure, I still have three nasty exams to get through, but once they’re over, I’ll hopefully come out a little bit smarter, a little bit happier and a tad more employable. University, both at the academic, social and creative level, has definitely been the best experience of my life. I swear I won’t get sentimental; I’ll come back and do a Masters instead. (Let’s hope; if only).

Inspirational Finnieston Pipe (!)
Inspirational Finnieston Pipe (!)

On Brutalism

Photo by Subflux: https://www.flickr.com/photos/subflux
Photo by Subflux: https://www.flickr.com/photos/subflux

One of the first things you notice when you come to university in Glasgow is the building that passed you by on the open days: Boyd Orr. Orr…ore…or? With such connotations of alchemy, alternation and mechanical process – the extraction of mineral from rock – you’d be forgiven for thinking this building might have that rare quality of metallic extraction. The glint of some loveliness got from the mined core of the earth – or at least some relic of its crust. Boyd Orr himself, as Wikipedia tells me, was a Scottish teacher, doctor, biologist and politician, who also bagged himself the Nobel Peace Prize for work relating to wartime nutrition. Fitting, perhaps, that this man who dabbled in the arts of healthy eating would give his name to a building that some have found physically repulsive and ugly – if anything, unhealthy.

Still, nutrition involves mining particles of food for their usefulness. Finding all the vitamins as a geologist might take ore from a rock. There is something abject about all this: wrenching nature inside out, textually taking apart her insides with the bland incisiveness of a knife (the linguistic thrills of science course-books). The molten loveliness of erosion, rocks, temporal process – we can reduce them to names and building blocks.  And so we have Boyd Orr, that building of much usefulness and much disgust. The beast of a building that somehow you find yourself in, day after day, traipsing up the stairs for lectures, waiting for someone to give you their jewels of information. You came here thinking you’d be living the Harry Potter high-life in the extravagantly gothic main building, chased by ghosts and granted with turret views. Instead, you end up four floors up in a building that sends its gross sneer across the otherwise lovely architectural landscape of the West End.

Source: theglasgowstory.com
Source: theglasgowstory.com

Whatever you might say about Boyd Orr – with its dirty-white panels, greying windows and greyer walls, with the greenish mould that creeps up its underside like seaweed on a rock and the ugly stark jut of its body against the surrounding skyline – you must say that it is a fine example of Brutalist architecture. The heyday of Brutalism was the period between 1950 to the mid-1970s, a reaction to the modernism of the early twentieth-century. Most examples of Brutalism tend to be found in governmental or institutional buildings (university libraries, shopping malls, high-rise housing), whilst corporate buildings have always favoured a more glassy, futurist chic. The thing that strikes you first about a Brutalist building is its sheer expression of, well, concrete. It hits you with the blunt materiality of a prison or fortress, and you know, it does take a while to get used to going inside. Sometimes it seems impossible that such a monolithic block is carved out inside with such things as canteens and toilets and classrooms. Part of its statuesque aura relates to its positioning: right on the corner of University Avenue and Byres Road, where the surrounding buildings are much smaller or indeed older (and prettier for that matter). There’s no getting away from this eyesore, this monument to an industrial modernity that seems now to be receding in the mise-en-abyme of contemporary metallic panelling, plexi-glass and plastic coating.

Edinburgh's Scottish Parliament Building. Photo by UncleBucko. https://www.flickr.com/photos/unclebucko
Edinburgh’s Scottish Parliament Building. Photo by UncleBucko. https://www.flickr.com/photos/unclebucko
Glasgow School of Art. Photo by gillfoto https://www.flickr.com/photos/gillfoto/
Glasgow School of Art. Photo by gillfoto https://www.flickr.com/photos/gillfoto/

Like the rest of Glasgow’s culture, its architecture is a tale of two cities. There’s the legacy of our colonial history, with flourishes of opulence on every corner; but there’s also the leftovers of 1970s ‘slum’ housing, the crumbling tenements where once upon a time (and, unfortunately, perhaps still today) a whole family would share a bedroom and washing was done at the ‘steamie’. In one street you might have a bizarre Art Deco number next to some crumbling sandstone tenements, or a gleaming new-build sprung up alongside Victorian houses with massive (single-glazed and listed) bay windows. There’s the black-and-white nostalgia of the Gorbals and then there’s the grandiose Park Circus, sat atop Kelvingrove Park looking out with picturesque views over the city. There’s the famous Carpet Factory, the Rennie Mackintosh Art School, the various churches, mosques and synagogues with their unique homage to Roman and Eastern styles. There’s the uncomfortable fact that much of Glasgow’s beautiful marmoreal and sandstone glory is built on the slave trade. We also have the bug-like SECC resting next to the Clyde as if we were in Sydney, the Royal Concert Hall that crowns the top of Buchanan Street, the new Hydro that more than anything resembles a UFO. It’s definitely a city of eclectic architecture. While we might not have the equivalent architectural (and indeed financial) notoriety of Edinburgh’s Scottish Parliament building (which in my family alone has been called ‘horrible’, ‘interesting’, ‘a waste of money’, ‘too modern’ and ‘more of an art gallery than a parliament’), we were in 1999 designated the UK City of Architecture and Design, beating the likes of London, Liverpool and of course, Edinburgh. You only have to reflect on the response to last year’s Art School fire to recognise how seriously we take our physical landscape and architectural heritage (even if it is often covered with ad posters and graffiti).

Photo by Susan Casey https://www.flickr.com/photos/susancasey/
The Gorbals, 1968. Photo by Susan Casey https://www.flickr.com/photos/susancasey/

Anyway, back to Brutalism. The key word related to its style, aside from concrete, is perhaps ‘function’. Stripped to its core elements, Brutalist architecture involves repeated ‘modular elements’ which are grouped together to form the whole. This is the raw fragmentation of modernism, here transformed into something with instrumental purpose, something solid that seeks to counteract the airy dissolution of modernity. ‘All that is solid melts into air’, Marx said. With Brutalism, the response is to make things as solid as possible. How ironic that Marx predicted a revolutionary dissolution of oppressive social structures, whilst the ‘proletariat’ in question remain literally trapped inside buildings which encase them in a physical manifestation of the very (metaphoric) solidity which binds them socially – the hard class structure, the poverty cycle and so on. And perhaps also ironic that some of these buildings were erected at a time when industrial labour was entering its decline in Britain and elsewhere, especially in Glasgow towards the end of the 1970s, as Thatcher came to power and that mineral source of wealth and opportunity (going back to ore of course) – mining – was dissolved from the national economy.

There is also the uncanniness of paradox attached to the fact that when one observes a Brutalist building, it is often difficult to discern its function due to the sheer vastness of its functionality. This relates back to what Edmund Burke in 1757 defined as ‘the sublime’:

The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature […] is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.

Burke was talking about the sublime as it was caused by scenes of nature: mountains, chasms, forests that seem to stretch on forever. However, as urban landscapes increasingly eat into our countryside, it seems fitting that we might consider the vastness of their proportions – or indeed, their ugliness – a kind of sublime in themselves. What else do we feel than a kind of passionate ‘horror’ as we find ourselves faced for the first time with buildings like London’s Trellick Tower and Barbican Centre or India’s Palace of Assembly? All those pattern-like repetition of squares resembling a Kantian ‘mathematical sublime’, whereby an overflow of signifiers stretching out into tedious infinity bears the threat of all meanings, distinctions and associations collapsing into one long metonymic chain leading to nothing but more signifiers. It’s enough to give you a headache, and quite ironic that Boyd Orr is next to the equally hideous though somewhat-smaller Mathematics Building.

Trellick Tower. Photo by Martin Hearn https://www.flickr.com/photos/martinhearn/
Trellick Tower. Photo by Martin Hearn https://www.flickr.com/photos/martinhearn/

Central to Burke’s idea of the sublime is the notion of the pleasure associated with terror: as we gaze at something which overwhelms us, we find ourselves staring into the abyss of meaninglessness, on the sheer precipice where representation itself collapses. St. Augustine suggested that the ugly was that which embodied formlessness in its lack of beauty. This aesthetics of excess or hideous terror appears curiously inappropriate for a style of building whose very purpose was built on form as function. We might think of Frankenstein’s monster, whose ugliness stems not only from the fact that he is composed of the flesh of dead cadavers, but also his sheer pointlessness – the fact that he is a ‘blot upon the Earth’, as Mary Shelley has him lament. Might we consider the likes of Boyd Orr a horrible, monstrous ‘blot’ upon our sacred streets? Or is this more than a question of mere aesthetics?

As Romantic poets readdressed the Neoclassical distaste for the gross pointlessness mountains (favouring, as Alexander Pope’s Windsor Forest perhaps best exemplifies, a view of nature as ordered and harmonious) by fetishising the psychologically disruptive experience of the sublime (in the way that Coleridge, de Quincey et al also favoured the psychologically disruptive experiences of opium), today’s generation are raising Brutalism to idolised status rather than rejecting it as a mere eyesore. Sure, you will have the many students who moan about Boyd Orr’s appearance on their campus, but you will have an equal number of enthusiasts on the likes of Tumblr posting Brutalist architecture onto their blogroll, alongside your Banksys and softcore erotica and fan-fiction all that other Tumblr jazz. Stark black and white photographs record an almost antiquarian fascination with the aesthetics of these buildings and their value as some relic of a solid past we can’t quite get back to in our shiny era of crazy postmodern architecture.

Photo by Tom Donald: https://www.flickr.com/photos/clearwood/
Photo by Tom Donald: https://www.flickr.com/photos/clearwood/

But is there an ethical problem underlying this fetishising of some Brutalist buildings? They are, after all, often the homes of many people living in relative poverty. Sometimes, these buildings are just down the road from areas of affluence and architectural extravagance. I don’t need to mention specific areas for you to think of places in Glasgow, because there are certainly many. It’s a problem related to the way that urban decay is appropriated as a kind of dark backdrop upon which a white, middle-class guy sorts his life out. There’s always been the ethnographer’s dilemma of how ethical it is making a living out of describing poor conditions without doing anything about it politically or practically. I suppose what I’m getting at though is that there’s something a bit more uncomfortable about using these buildings as ‘cool’ aestheticism, a mere viewing-spot on the blasé scroll of online photography. Still, I don’t think there are clear answers to this; and maybe it’s good to share images, because sharing raises awareness.  You just have to keep in mind the whole problem of ‘poverty porn’, and the notion that by glorifying certain buildings you are also glorifying a particular experience of poverty, however unintentional your actions.

Photo by  https://www.flickr.com/photos/22087304@N07/
The Red Road flats. Photo by <p&p> https://www.flickr.com/photos/22087304@N07/

Indeed, this perhaps is what made me so uncomfortable about last year’s plans to demolish the iconic Red Road tower blocks and transmit the demolition live as part of the Opening Ceremony of the Commonwealth Games. While it is of course good that the Games involved building new, much more accommodating and safer houses to replace these crumbling relics of Glasgow’s past, I don’t agree that it should’ve been broadcast to add a ‘bang’ to the Opening Ceremony. London gets magnificent fireworks for the Olympics, we get…glorified demolition? Destroying a symbol of poverty doesn’t destroy poverty itself, however easy it makes it look. Luckily, these controversial plans were scrapped in the end after much public opposition (which just shows again how much Glaswegians care about their physical environment and the social consciousness within it). Regeneration is underway with the Games’ legacy and of course it is a great thing, but there is no need to sanctimoniously erase history in front of the world to show that you’re doing it.

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This points to the whole issue of Brutalism’s somewhat brutal decline since the 1980s, especially in Britain. Vocalised distaste from public figures, the association with urban decay, problems with graffiti, cramped living conditions and its starkly cold, almost totalitarian appearance, all contributed to this decline. Another contribution to this decline perhaps came from British Literature’s concrete guru, J. G. Ballard, as his novel High Rise (1975) documents a dystopian, Lord of the Flies situation where the closed conditions of a high-rise building lead to a swift degeneration of the residents lives. The enclosed spatiality of place itself gives rise to a carnival of savagery and violence, where primitive desires are unleashed in this isolated environment. The opening line perhaps gives you a good indication of where Ballard is going with this novel: ‘Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.’ There is a strain of dark humour running through the text, as well as the shock value of its exposure of human nature placed in its urban limits. You get the sense that Ballard secretly revels in both the sheer surreal ugly inhumanity of it all, whilst critiquing the politics of urban planning that might one day lead to such a scenario.

Overall, I’m not sure where my position on Boyd Orr lies. There are days where I’m walking to uni along Highburgh Road and when Boyd Orr looms out of a cloudy winter sky my spirits sink like a puddle of snow slush. But there are times when you can’t help but notice the strange beauty of copper-coloured sunlight flashing upon its windows at dusk, as if a thousand eyes were staring out of those cold, impersonal walls. I think there’s value in preserving these buildings, not just because they possess a kind of chic urban sublime, but because they remind us of the ideals our society once held, even if they were misguided, flawed or impossible. I suppose I’d rather stare at the stark reality of an ugly monster, a decrepit Boyd Orr, than lose myself in the illusory surfaces of the glassy Wolfson Medical School, or the kitsch blue and green panels of the neo-Brutalist Fraser Building. I’d rather a chunk of dull glowing ore than a perfect rhinestone…

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The Fraser Building opposite Glasgow Uni Library

Christmas Traditions

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Christmas begins with a different ritual for everyone. For some people, it’s when the radio stations start playing familiar Christmas hits from the 80s. For others, it’s the first bite of a mince pie crumbling its buttery sticky sweetness in your fingers. For most supermarkets, it’s the day after Halloween, when the shelves are quickly stocked with tins of Roses and Quality Street and Celebrations and a Christmas tree is rather humbly erected in every store’s entrance. For me, it used to be when we started making cut-out paper snowflakes at school; when they would play Christmas songs on the old stereo system that crackled when anyone walked near it, as if it were possessed somehow. Or a trip to a pound shop to buy our dog an artfully tacky sparkly collar and/or chew toy and/or basket of treats. These days I’m involved in buying sparkly socks more than dog collars, but the sentiment is still there.

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Some people are super keen for Christmas and have their trees up right from the first of December. In the library during exam period the festive jumpers are out in full swing, as are the seasonal lattes (Praline and Pumpkin Spice) retrieved from the Byres Road Starbucks. In our house, the tree usually doesn’t get put up until Christmas Eve; since our cousins from England would sometimes come up to us, we would wait for their arrival to decorate it, late in the evening, before leaving out a carrot, mince pie and brandy for Rudolph and Santa.

Traditions, however, change just like people. At school, Christmas came with the baggage of P.E. becoming training for social dancing throughout December. No Scottish child has been exempt from the painful awkwardness of having to choose a sweaty-palmed partner and learning to dance often incredibly complex steps (I’m looking at you, Strip the Willow) to the amusement of all their peers. And that’s if they’re lucky enough not to be left last and paired with a teacher. Of course, the older you get, the less embarrassment tends to dominate your entire consciousness, so dancing becomes more fun. You know, I would even go to a ceilidh of my own free will now, although back then I thought it was a form of torture cooked up to torment children out of enjoying their Christmas. It didn’t help that the school dance also involved the necessity of buying a compulsory sequined party dress (not a fun enterprise when you are a ten-year-old tomboy that hates shopping) and a dinner whose only option for vegetarians was salt and vinegar crisps (I swear I’m not really complaining). Still, the brutally hilarious fights over ‘he wiz dancin with ma girlfriend’ that you could witness outside afterwards while waiting to be picked up made the night somewhat worth it.

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At secondary school, playing in the brass band forged new festive traditions. There were the rehearsal days for the Christmas concert, where you got to take a whole morning out of class, carrying your instrument down to the tinselled town hall and sit for hours munching snacks from the local Spar and watching everybody else perform. Then there were the primary school tours, where we would pile into a mini van and play in the surrounding school assemblies for the generous payment of a box of chocolates that were swiftly devoured before lunch. You felt so important, playing up there on a stage and being praised by your old teachers while all the little kids watched you with wide-eyed wonder and you remembered that you were in that crowd only a few years ago, hoping that someday you could be the big kid on stage with the shiny instrument adorned with tinsel.

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When Glasgow’s shoppers’ wonderland, the aptly-named Silverburn, opened its doors, a new tradition was created. Picking me up after a hard day at college, Mum would drive me up to the shopping centre and we would do the last bits of our Christmas shopping. There’s a certain magic to the indoor consumer paradise, with all the lights and the giant snowglobe for kids to get pictures in and the seductive glow of expensive shop windows. Everything was warm and clean and once we’d done our shopping we’d go for a mince pie at Starbucks, where we could look out over all the people dressed in reindeer jumpers and laden with glossy shopping bags. These days, traditional Christmas has become more fashionable and you can go to see the Christmas markets in pretty much every British city. It all has a German and Scandinavian flavour which still feels a bit refreshing. We used to always go up to see the lights at George Square, a tradition that seems very sad and innocent now after yesterday’s heartbreaking incident, but nevertheless retains importance in my memory – and many people’s memories, I should imagine. There’s also the lovely, extravagant decor of traditional department stores which resonates the Christmas magic of the early twentieth century: I’m thinking Princes Mall and House of Fraser in Glasgow, then Jenners and Harvey Nichols in Edinburgh. I’m sure London too has much to offer, although sadly I only get to experience that through my half-hearted attempts to join my family in watching the terrible Christmas specials of Made in Chelsea.

George Square
George Square

It used to be that we’d go to Culzean to collect twigs and fir cones and sprigs of holly for decorating the house. We’d spray them with gold and dip them in glitter. Sometimes we still do that, as if living out the old ritual of making Christmas cards that Mum made us do every year when we were at primary school. I love crafting and firmly believe that it’s one of the most relaxing things you can do. A few years ago I went through a phase of making loads of candle holders out of glass jars which I painted with acrylics. At school there was always the last few days of term where people wandered about not doing much and hardly going to class. Teachers would wave us away with a ‘Merry Christmas’ instead of teaching us and we’d sit and watch Meet the Fockers on repeat (at least in primary school we had the enterprise to bring in board games) and wish we’d decided to skive. Often I retreated to the art department where we could make snowflakes and paint bottles and pretend we were little again.

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At uni, the last classes are a bit more exciting. For one thing, mulled wine often factors in. Also, the fear (in first and second year at least) of Christmas exams. I used to hate how university decided to give us exams in December, with only a week to study for them. It was incredibly stressful, but in the long run I suppose it was a good thing because we didn’t have to study much over Christmas, as we did with the January prelims for Highers and Advanced Highers. Sometimes, the fear makes Christmas all the more sweeter. I remember in my first year at uni, I’d just gone with a friend to an impromptu gig at Brel on Ashton Lane. It was Rachel Sermanni and the singer from Admiral Fallow who were playing acoustic sets and it felt very wintry and magical. And when I left, to go back to my flat to cook chilli bean soup and study, it began to snow as I walked up Great George Street. It was one of those enchanting moments when you feel everything swell up and really seem to mean something. Like you’re in a movie. I was finally so happy to be in Glasgow and a student, even with three exams that week. It’s hard to not love your university and city when it looks like this:

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After exams (and more recently, essay and dissertation hand-ins) comes all the comforting Christmas rituals that I love so well. Buying sparkly nail polish and the December edition of Vogue which weaves a fantasy of luxury office Christmas parties thats nowadays I have the (privilege?) of serving if not just imagining. Seeing fairy lights being put up in the restaurant where I work and all the Black Friday and Christmas bookings looming before us. Decorating the Christmas tree at home each year with new decorations got in our stockings. I missed out on decorating the Christmas tree at school, but came back from Belmont one day to see that we’d managed to procure one for the sixth year common room, and someone had decorated it artfully with ornaments worthy of any John Lewis special collection: a load of empty crisp packets.

My flat at Christmas time, 2012
My flat at Christmas time, 2012

Still, sometimes makeshift Christmasses can be fun, or at least interesting. My brother and friend Jack randomly phoning in and singing ‘Last Christmas’ live on BBC Asian Network radio. Stringing a half-hearted bit of tinsel and some Poundland fairy lights over my bookshelf. In first year at uni, we had a festive dinner party in halls, but seeing as I’ve always prioritised exams and studying over pretty much everything else, I ended up cooking my own vegetarian option which was incidentally the only thing I had in the fridge: a fried courgette. Even so, the party poopers (obviously I was included) were the ones who had to scrape all the meat scratchings and grease off the dirty pans like a band of Cinderellas until one in the morning while everyone else was having a good time at the QMU’s Cheesy Pop. Still, it was a lesson in the underside of hospitality…

My Mum's nutroast
My Mum’s nutroast

Arguing about who will do the washing up is a regular feature of our household at Christmas, as it probably is pretty much everywhere. It’s not so bad when you do it together. That’s the festive spirit, anyway. Then on Boxing Day we tend to go for a nice long walk – one year it was along Ayr Beach and through Belleisle, another through Maidens and Culzean, in past years it will have been places in England. Christmas Day used to be an early dinner and then sitting in  the hallway stuffing myself with Quality Street and playing the new Pokemon on my Game Boy Advance while everyone else watched the Queen’s Speech and boxsets of Only Fools and Horses. We still retain the tradition of eating bagels for breakfast (I wonder is this some kind of strange nod to our Jewish ancestry?), but nowadays it’s more a cheeky Amaretto or some Bucksfizz (maybe it should adapt and be Buckfast) and a lovely walk up to Maybole monument through the golf course and dinner at about eight when the crappy oven we have at home has finally decided to roast the parsnips. Both have their magic. The best part is still the waking up early to open my stocking. This year, I’ll be working Christmas Day, so I’ll have my Christmas on Boxing Day. But that’s okay, because Christmas is what you make it.

A typical Christmas scene...Bella worn out from opening her many presents...
A typical Christmas scene…Bella worn out from opening her many presents…