Poem: Chrome

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Chrome

Wish you would tell me where we’re going
as though in a car, snaking down the road
instead of waiting for breakfast
waiting to say this and chewing your oats
It’s dark outside, gets darker every day
this isn’t supposed to happen
I only listen to radio on Fridays why is that
like a song or something
everyone is leaving the party already
afternoons are reminiscent
of last week’s afternoon, come over later
and tell me what you did
I feel quite sick when I think of a lyric
and a stranger asking if I have any filters
You could put a white tip at the end of the poem
like pushing oil into cuticles
Nobody glides down the rain like you do
Which is lifted all bent from a love song
milder than cheddar
You listen on Sundays for wine, she comes out
of the willow to speak to you
coyly undoing her hair or herself
There is no reply, I hold in my grammar
with a bell for the wheel of the eerie freedom
something better than nothing
is like aaah is like aaah
I think this is the song you wanted
me to send, edgewise
sounding the commute back to verb
and speaking in frail duration
send me the book
like send me the lemons in nets
I tear up my tights on your thorny gaze
said nobody ever
one or two poems to think of the future
coming all orange across my eyes, ode
to the hairbells, ode to spring
Nobody does better the song of your loss
becoming this twice
aligned with health, somebody calls
the corner out
Even circles of knitwear have their factions
This is what it is to order a reef
when the coral runs out
Nobody will visit
wherein all the albatrosses start to sing
of plastics, clattering outwards
the slick of your thong is a sorry
I did not want to include
in modes of deception, lesser
named firs for timelines
going on to wherever
the trees can’t stop like dubstep
I know he’s still alive because he updates his tumblr
with black and white versions of parisian film sets
What is the speed of your smile times time
I’m the you in the nobody, ask me a question
Twitter matters
Align with astral cancellation
very bad glasses occurring small
sweet sertraline as if we—
dream in which on the hill you kiss me
and I can’t call a doctor
rolling over the hunger
looking at anything for the memory
sparkle chips click in my eye like granite
Haven’t felt this good about feeling for ages
I could say there’s a veil
dragging the face into thrill of the lyric
repulsive sense just is
ice jam
made to appear like sickness
lifting weights in little reps
Always seven or ever eleven
salve for lateral acid
lifting my arms for the shape of you gone
I don’t want to leave the house today
I don’t want to stay
I don’t want to leave my dreams tomorrow
Who was it that wanted their post just so
and tripped over horses
how clean he looked, sans cigarettes
we look better like light I suppose
castles are glass apparitions
when pressed against cereal
somebody lighting a candle at noon
This final luxury, fold me fast
my wicked friend how are you how are you
I ate all the rotten satsumas
a cascade of raisins
You see of the sky is it stars
or loops of moon
coming everywhere over like fruit
A bike ride, spectacular orbit
undoing that future
share of negative, however pristine
you will your spirits
they glide, authentic
collapse is verse of vice
Dark logs in the fire of order
sharing a wary winter
therein you see me not as it seems
not as in dust or starry application
this diminishing
dictionary effect of your all-sorts
soft liquorice next
sorting the necklace
It got really great before it stopped being anything
the girls are just men
and the men are waves like william said
is it the string that fallates a sea
change in me
the cloud is light
the cloud is heavy
something comes on in the breath of the lethe
I wish I could write like her it seems
wingless to admit this
Drowning dreams me
A pallor of belly and sound
What we read then we read only as extract
locked in the lyre of mind
a fragile cant of flint and ticket
a voice comes out of the hurricane
like sugar and the serenity tint of your missive
I would be wreath and tea, I would be holly
and berry your eyes just so I like them
shinier on high apparitions of pills
pain-wise it’s easy to breathe
absently-minded the child again
sits on the hill, stirring a little
leaf with its fist
and singing of latitude, sisterhood
lustres of puberty hurt
a poem rolls up
a play in the middle like sequins of toffee
all cooked up
heroin-rich continuum
babies are blue and twirling their words
fertility is lyric
lately a georgic thought
updates the landscape, refresh of its disk
in embers, cabling dark a sigh
a fish hook, best to cock
one’s eye at the sun for money
evolving lizards
caress the sand
and scatter monopoly houses
if I were so young as a werewolf rage
and twang of your green-red tongue
and sunwise; no matter for affect
aphexxing light without face
and girls of the sea
and boys of the sound
resting, newness is blue and plenty
writ of the world for day
and rage, opening indie
pseudo confusions of listening
imperilled chicago
What nobody has is time
or velvet, less of you
is always the bulb of next year’s
failing spring
and how did the system get so notorious
coming everywhere glowing like solar
panels in squares of gardens
making this civic
bliss of the window, fifties
kiss-catching my way into the country again
how did it get this mild
cradling the absent children as lambs
the way we did then
sweet green midnight
je suis shepherdess
a ridiculous landscape
clatters upon the stereo, two hours ago
hold out for multiple eclipses, active now
man you taste like whisky I love you
better in nuclear energy
a plantain reply
it doesn’t matter which outlook you use
the tax is similar
season three was a language parasol
being small again eating polos off your toes
I’ll be in that bed forever
better apple of revolutionary england
did not occur
let milk shake
I hate to say all general evie
and everything made for you
everything hurts
A big star fell on your pillow again
traded the oolong for tooth
this is february fifth forever and ever
do you want to come under the duvet again
as if it was made of straws
do you want to come over
threading first storm of loss
the adequate tapestry
Mostly recyclables, hold out the phone
as saul does a melt
to speak as surface
gliding nightly a rare casino snow
soldering palms for oil
and dairy dream of cold pastoral
drunk radiation
flays me, such nexus flesh
equivalent fern
in the kitchen
lunarium death and starving time
the driver was listening to angel of harlem
a fair blue world
a bluer fur
who would crowd now the pale critique
closing all windows
the way you fell over.

— 5/2/19

Playlist: February 2018

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The birds in the garden have been keeping me up again. Sleep slides in and out of the dark hour, for which I’ve been hoarding the lights in my room for a sunrise. I’m not very good at putting on records; they always jump at the wrong bit, glitching backwards. When you wake up because the moonlight is too bright. It is a question of paying attention. It is a question of living quiet. I wish I could sleep like you.

Spent a few days waiting on trains late into the night or the afternoon. My fingers making a conspiracy of amethyst, mottled with cold. There’s a little glass case you can stand in, twirling your body to get the light to switch on again. I’ve got my comforting songs pressed into my headphones. Funny things happen in my chest when I hear them. Sometimes it’s a release, other times it’s like you can see all the filaments of your blood and sinew twist and sprawl like delicate vines. It feels hot and temporary. I flicker through bad thoughts about what might happen to the people I love. I flicker through good thoughts about what we can do with the summer. It seems so distant.

Sometimes I fall literally into bed; it’s like someone is dropping me.

There are moments I pull very close. There are places where everyone is here at once. There are places where it’s just us and it’s finally warm and my mouth tastes of dark fruit cider and other people’s cigarettes I didn’t want in the first place. The curtains are always closed.

I keep thinking about how there are takeaway shops in the southside named after glistering techno bands and wondering what came before. In my head it is always the music, but then maybe that is something Leonard Cohen said, or didn’t. No, what was it, we are ugly / but we have the music. These shops look like dollhouse shops with all the tools and objects miniatured, but maybe this is just an effect of where I’m standing from across the street, short-sighted. I went out dressed in gingham shorts and other inappropriate quantities of yellow. To have music you sort of have to walk a bit more; you have to let rhythm and melody drop memory with muscle. I once said, leaving a party, I have to make tracks and he thought I meant laying down records. But in a way it is all just recording. When do we click off? Skip between beats.

There are signs of spring. I say this as it starts to snow. I mean a few days ago I could see buds on the trees, little yellow flowers. What happens now? Do they retreat inwards? I picture them shivering within precious membranes, cocoons, algorithms of promise interrupted. It’s okay, I’ll be buying less of these indulgent Lindt eggs from the Tesco round the corner. I’ll thin out eventually. Easter will come too early this year. Winter keeps us in its arms forever, shivering because like those buds we are children. Some people burst through. I admire the impulse. It’s like what, dancing naked in the snow. I used to listen to Sonic Youth when I was angry, whacking objects off dressers, now I close my eyes and try to visualise the colour blue. I get about as close as turquoise before everything melts to bliss. That would be the ideal effect. There’s something very beautiful and suggestive about the word lagoon. Is there a pill for this?

Recently I’ve been rediscovering canals. You see it’s actually been sunny. You have to walk along the motorway, cross several spaghetti roads to get over to the Phoenix Flowers—these sort of peculiar, half-lovely windmill structures. Then an underpass and up some steps. I follow a band of miscreant hipsters. A sign saying Urban Oasis. The canal looks good when the sun hits. I mean it looks sharp and glassy and properly blue. The trees glow ochre in the sun; the way they have faded all through winter seems refreshing now instead of exhausting. In a few months this should all be green. There’s still a fragility. Very little litter. You can see the stadium and the industrial buildings, warehouses and garages and houses. Everything over there gleams rust in the sun. I listen for whistles or song but the air is only as close as my headphones. I’m listening to The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, remembering odd passages from Cider with Rosie and feeling regret for nights I could’ve made longer with more wholesome spirits. Waking up to bright clusters of strawberry jam on bread like blood on the sheets.

Nothing floats by on the canal, though there are boats tied at Applecross and then a few bottles bobbing their dark viridian messages. I write letters to friends in England, emails to friends in America.

Somewhere down the line, where does all this become ASCII?

I write an inordinate quantity of poetry about bruises and flowers and passing time. The year has stepped up its bicycle gear and I wish my bike was in order so I could fly down the Clyde like Brendan and May in Ruby/Sapphire. Most mornings are filled with flash fiction and occasional bouts of panic. I finish draft ten of an important application.

Daffodils on the kitchen table bloom overnight, just like that. They are marvellously, gorgeously yellow. I feel no shame in showering adjectives.

I dream a lot about the sea. Except we don’t reach it. Mostly it is a question of negotiating cliffs to find safe accommodation. I buy family-sized bags of crisps just for the taste of salt, then feel awful afterwards. This is probably normal.

I am drawn to a piece of teal-coloured scaffolding mesh that resembles a streak of kelp on the street.

It feels good to make coffees and twirl around tables. It feels good to be serving, to eke out a few hours on other people’s time. Sometimes I look forward to a long, long waitress’s summer. Sunlight, sparkling lager and indefinite afterparties. Reams of time to commit to writing in lieu of sleep. We hover at table six and salvage lost noughties culture, folding paper napkins to crisp blue lines. If everything was this chiasmic, easily given to compost.

Today’s Oblique Strategy pops up on my Twitter timeline: Make something implied more definite. Last year I got Tinder but ended up using it mostly to talk about Brian Eno to at least two strangers. I feel like I understand lust less; it is like clustering the silent hours with extra ambience. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The snow outside my window right now is pretty pathetic. People are shaving the skin off clouds. It is really happening; the gaps are appearing. Sometime early nineties, year of the Rooster, hole in the ozone layer.

Being a sucker for charm, longing for the twilight of virtual swamplands where it is possible to cry again. An effect of atmospheric toxins. This is a slow-burner, just slip it on and trust me. You can see through the nacreous membranes, someone else’s confected scrolls of sugar, confession, snow.

~

Hookworms – Ullswater

Robert Rental, Thomas Leer – Day Breaks, Night Heals

Beth Orton, Four Tet – Carmella (Four Tet remix)

Kiasmos – Blurred (Bonobo remix)

Beach House – Lemon Glow

Agony – Beach Fossils

The Orielles – Old Stuff, New Glass

Japanese Breakfast – Soft Sounds from Another Planet

Martha Ffion – Baltimore

Cloud – Happer’s Laugh

Sun Kil Moon – Among the Leaves

Suuns – Make It Real

Brian Jonestown Massacre – Throbbing Gristle

Iceage – Catch It

Marnie – Lost Maps

King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – The Lost Oasis

Neroche – Sycamore Trees

Grouper – Vapor Trails

Fieldhead – How Much I Love the Sea

Arthur Russell – Arm Around You

Mazzy Star – Five String Serenade

Yo La Tengo – Nowhere Near

There Will Be Fireworks – South Street

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.

Memories from MSN

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Few things define the noughties more than MSN Messenger. The spinning pair of green and blue icons, surrounded by butterflies. The friendly window which popped up every time you logged onto the family computer after school, to ‘do some homework’. Forget Facebook, MSN was basically the main communication channel for my generation growing up, and I feel like its recent closure deserves some elegising. Yes, incase you hadn’t heard, MSN (rebranded since 2005 as Windows Live Messenger), is no longer with us. Microsoft forced its clients to give up the nostalgic platform and merge with Skype.

I remember getting my first email address, when the world of social media as we know it was still in its infancy. My cousin helped me set up my first hotmail account, and I was delighted to find that I could call it anything I wanted. I could express my (proto-manic-pixie) weirdness with some cool and random name I made up. I opted for ‘strawberry_bonfire’, an email address which incidentally I still often use (although not for LinkedIn or job applications…). It felt like a rite of passage, typing in my home address for some anonymous computer to process and setting up a password and making an email signature. People could now contact me. I was contactable. I’d have my own inbox. More importantly, I could set up a Neopets account! And an MSN account!

There was something unique about MSN’s interface which sets it apart from the likes of Facebook messenger, or Snapchat. I suppose the emphasis on conversation is key here. Each conversation opened out into a window of its own, although you could group your chats in ‘tabs’ for ease of moving between conversations. There was of course, the odd awkward moment when you accidentally sent someone a message reply that was intended for another person. Gossiping via MSN was a tricky business, which required organisation and attention.

Everything was a beautiful network of colours and messed-up symbols. It took a good five minutes to work out who was who when you looked at your contacts list, especially if your friends had recently updated their names. There was a whole sequence of tildas, dashes and asterisks to sift through before you could pinpoint your pal’s pseudonym or elaborately embellished screen name. I suppose that’s another reason why (not so) secretly I still prefer MySpace and MSN to Facebook…there’s that element of individuality that you don’t really get in the highly structured systems of more contemporary social media platforms. Sure, they’re probably more resistant to coding bugs because of their relative standardisation, but I miss the quirkiness of an amateur’s attempts at html on a MySpace theme, or a smear or rainbow lettering constituting someone’s MSN name. You came to know people not by their boring old real name and photograph (as on Facebook), but by some random avatar and distinctive font. That one friend you recognised when they popped up saying ‘hi’ by their enduring use of cyan-coloured Comic Sans or violet Monotype Corsiva as much as their name. There’s a nice sense of cosiness that comes with this, of online personalities being fabricated, selves being formed in the endless conversations that would eat into hours of an evening. Back then, we were too young to go to the pub, too remote in the country to find something ‘real’ and useful to do like join a sports club or an art class. Even if we did do extra stuff, MSN filled in the rest of our time, extended our social lives.

Then there was the personal message. This could range from ‘ugh doing maths homework’, to ‘Amy You Are My One <3’ and the ambiguous ‘=/’ which would result in a barrage of people asking ‘what’s up?’, only for the person to reply, ‘nothing’. Your personal message also revealed what you were listening to, if you had your iTunes hooked up. This of course stopped you listening to hideously embarrassing music (in theory) and listening to what you thought would impress other people. It was also a good indicator of people’s moods. God knows I wouldn’t start a conversation with someone if they were listening to Secondhand Serenade or Hawthorne Heights…

Then there was the ‘nudge’ function which was brought in later on. The bane of your existence if you were trying to coordinate MSN with homework or downloading or streaming YouTube videos (basically, my ancient computer would crash every time I received a nudge), the nudge would make your screen shake and force you to pay attention to the nudger’s conversation. Luckily you could only send a restricted number within a certain period of time. There was a time when MSN conversations were very precious, back in the pre-Broadband days when you dreaded that fateful phrase from your mother, ‘I’m going to unplug the internet because I need to use the phone’. You had waited so long for that bloody diallup connection to ring through and now you had to hastily sign off with a quick ‘g2g xxx’. To be fair, a lot of conversations basically went like this:

Person A: Hey x
Person B: Helloooooo

Person A: Howz u?
Person B: nb, u?
Person A: gd thanks
Person B: wubu2?
Person A: just hw and stuff, u?
Person B: yeh same

Person B: g2g, byeeeee xxx

Nevertheless, a lot of us had our first breakups, friend fallouts and heart-to-heart confessions over MSN. That, I guess, is where a lot of the nostalgia comes from. Staying up into the small hours on a Friday night having a moan about life to someone, or helping them through something they were going through. You could send them helpful web articles or songs to cheer them up (it might take 2 hours for the song to arrive though), or a funny picture (memes were growing popular). Emoticons back then weren’t the loathsome ‘emoji’ phenomenon they are now (god I sound like an old woman) – they were generally small and unobtrusive (unlike Apple updating your iPad and putting in an emoji keyboard without telling you…) and often served as a welcome substitute from =] or ‘lol’ being added to the end of every message. And then if you were going on holiday you could put the little tropical island or plane symbol in your personal message, and people would know that you were now an exotic thing talking to them from the imaginary world of some hotel abroad (with dodgy WiFi connections).

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emoticons! all the emoticons!

MSN was in some ways an endlessly frustrating service, but in a way that’s what made it so good. The game of how to talk to someone you fancied without making yourself look like a stalker (wait at least ten minutes before talking to them after they’ve signed in), of working out whether your matter was urgent enough to disturb someone whose status was ‘Busy’. There was always that weirdo online at 4am who you sometimes wanted to speak to and ask what the hell was up with their sleeping pattern. Then there were the endless difficulties with connection that left you kicking the desk underneath your computer and wishing you had one of those newfangled Macbooks or something (I guess this is where the ease of the latest messaging services comes in). I kept a notepad next to my keyboard for a while and it was amazing the amount of doodling I could do in the time I spent waiting for MSN to load; sometimes it was as bad as waiting for a 3GB installation of the Sims!

Source: Urban Dictionary

Yes, MSN was great for killing time. If you had friends round, chances were you’d end up on MSN, talking to (berating, more like) SmarterChild. SmarterChild was an instant messaging chatbot, a robot who replied to your message with a complex(ish) formula of responses. You’d send it (him?) lewd messages and he’d scold you for being inappropriate. You could ask him a question about your homework and he’d do his best to look up some (mostly irrelevant) answer. He’d do your times tables, and give you dictionary definitions. If you were in a bad moon, you could take it out on SmartChild. Talking to SmarterChild felt that you were outsmarting all those academic people who were worrying about the effects of inhuman interaction on us children. We were outsmarting the robots here.

There’s a lot of talk nowadays about the dangers of the Internet for young people. Schoolchildren are supposed to be educated about staying safe online, about not talking to strangers or giving out personal information. I don’t really remember getting much (if any) education on this at school, other than, ‘don’t give anyone your phone number’. Remember that familiar acronym which haunted every MSN conversation you had with a stranger: ASL? Standing for ‘Age, Sex, Location’, it was (is?), as Urban Dictionary puts it, ‘what stupid people say on chats to learn who you are and where you live so they can come to your house with a chainsaw and kill you.’ Most of the time I would reply ’99, Cat, the moon’, and then block them, but then that’s just me…I always felt MSN was totally safe. It was so easy to block people (the satisfaction of seeing their little icon turn red!) or appear offline so they couldn’t start a conversation with you. The fact that it was a separate console and not embedded within your browser felt more private somehow, and less like your every word was being tracked with cookies, or sucked into the black hole of some governmental data archive. Facebook exposes a lot more information about you than MSN ever did. All you’d get from the average person’s MSN profile was some kooky screen name, a jumble of symbols and song lyrics and maybe a blurry/’arty’ webcam shot of the side of their face.

One of the earliest academics to properly study the effects of online communication on people’s identities was Sherry Turkle. Her book Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (1995) looked at how people interact via MUDs (role playing games and forums on the the internet), through which they communicated in fictional worlds. I suppose the fantasy-scape of something like Dungeons and Dragons is an example here, but someone with more expertise in what is evolving into online cos-play would surely be able to list many more. Well in this book, Turkle basically argued that such online interactions, which involved the play of masks and multiple identities, were allowing people to develop a postmodern mode of knowledge – they came to see reality itself as a play of surface signifiers, a swirling universe of simulations. Think Baudrillard here, only, Baudrillard getting serious research application (not just armchair academia or The Matrix). Identity becomes a game, a game in which you have some control; as Turkle points out, “One player says, ‘You are what you pretend to be…you are what you play.’”. Simulations basically infect out reality, and allow us to enjoy it like a game, playing out the selves we have created online.

Scene from Chatroom

There are of course, many film and literary representations of the dangers of forging online identities: the thriller Chatroom (2010) stages chatrooms as anonymous hotel rooms, in which teenagers encourage each other to do increasingly disturbing actions in reality, culminating in the most psychopathic character trying to manipulate someone to commit suicide. Jeanette Winterson’s The Power.Book (2000), named after an old Mac computer, delves into the fantasy realm enabled by the Internet, with its chimerical portrayal of a dialogue between two selves (whose names and identities shift). For Winterson, the computer functions as a way of exploring the multiplicity of narratives, the instantaneity of their communication and transformation. Her chapters have names like ‘New Document’ and ‘Search’. Whether she creates a credible Internet Romance (could this be a genre? The Guardian (2000) reviewed it as ‘a virtuoso trip into virtual reality’ ) or a gimmicky spin on vaguely plausible computer jargon is up to the reader. Still, it does link in to Turkle’s ideas about how the Internet has fabricated a postmodern reality of play and possibility.

I’m not sure exactly how much scope MSN offered for that sort of thing. Often, we just used it to chat to our friends as we would in real life. We’d have ‘group convos’ which contained as much shouting (CAPITALS), annoying nudges and confusing dialogue as such a conversation would play out in real life. Sure, maybe we’d open up a bit more online, with the safety of the computer interface. We could tell our secrets to complete strangers, who wouldn’t know our real name and so couldn’t track us down later via Facebook to wreck our lives. We could just block them. So maybe there was a bit of identity ‘play’ there, but mostly it was just an extension of the interactions we had in the park, on the bus, in the playground. It wasn’t a simulated, enclosed environment in the same way a chatroom online is; it wasn’t a specific ‘zone’ – it was a console that you opened up, a kind of tool as opposed to a virtual reality. That’s how it felt to me anyway.

Throughout my teens, Piczo, MySpace and Bebo would come and go, fading into the recesses of an Internet shadow-world that secretly archives every scrap of your self that was once uploaded online. But MSN was faithful, erasing every conversation into the imaginary ether, so that only you could read over previous conversations (if you had ‘chat logs’ switched on; but they certainly weren’t searchable online in the same way your dreadful Piczo account was). MSN was the gateway for many friendships, a forum to vent frustration and a place to play chess with a stranger from America who added you because his cousin knew your friend or something. A place where you got a pleasant kick from signing on and seeing the ghost message of someone who’d tried to talk to you when you were offline. You felt that important. A place of horrific fonts: ‘яσ¢кιи ιи нєανєи, 2кαιι7’ and fondly irritating screennames (my own include ‘Whatsername’ (yes, a riff on Green Day’s American Idiot – I was a twelve-year-old-wannabe-goff) and Maria Magickk (I promise you, I knew people with worse ‘scene’ names than that; also, I thought the double k was a clever reference to the ‘kk’ which everyone substituted for ‘okay’ on MSN. Oh dear.). Now that MSN has been shut down for good in its final resting place and we all have to migrate to Skype (never!), I guess all that’s left for us Generation Y people is the WhatsApps and Snapchats and other gimmicky chat applications that smartphones have brought us. Conversation these days is less about talking and more about sending emoticons and stupid pictures (bah humbug!). For the rest of us, there’s always the excellent nostalgia trip that is the MSN Memories Twitter account: https://twitter.com/MSNmesenger (enjoy).

the dreaded Troubleshoot message

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Kellaway, Kate, 2000. ‘She’s got the power’ in The Guardian. Available at: <http://www.theguardian.com/books/2000/aug/27/fiction.jeanettewinterson> [Accessed 3.11.14].

Nakata, Hideo, 2010. Chatroom [DVD].

Neopets(!) www.neopets.com [just cause you have to try it]

Turkle, Sherry, 1995. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (New York: Simon & Schuster).

Winterson, Jeanette, 2000. The Power.Book (London: Vintage).