Something about how we consume culture - Ellen Peirson-Hagger
It’s a cliche that this is the era of information over-saturation. Within just a few seconds of a friend mentioning the name of a band to me, suggesting I listen to something new, I could find a detailed biography, extensive discography, reels of interviews, photographs, all laid out before me. This all before I’ve listened to any music.
I’m a fiend for this kind of journalistic consumption. It’s just so easy. I like knowing tiny details that artists allude to in lyrics, or the stories behind the conception of a song.
I smile when I remember tiny anecdotes I have read about bands. And I wonder whether other people who like these bands too know these things, and whether they hold them at the forefront of their minds while listening to the music, like I often do. I wonder too what I would think of a song if I didn’t have that backstory.
I have read that the British folk-ish musician Laura Marling has had the words of the title of her latest album, Semper Femina (‘always woman’, from Virgil’s Aeneid), tattooed on her thigh since she was 21. She is now 27. Marling has passed through three album cycles since then, all with the idea of femininity on her mind, and has written, recorded, released and toured other songs of other themes. Yet the sentiment of Semper Femina—that of female friendship, of loving while worming your way out from under the male gaze—has been alive in her mind all this time, lying dormant under her other works.
I find that intriguing. A friend of mine brushes off her poignancy on Marling with characteristic matter-of-factness. “So it's like been on her mind?” she sends in a text to me, “Her ideas and everything?” I wonder how long I could keep a thought like that lingering in the back of my mind. I think it would seep out two albums early.
And from the newspaper. I’ll flick and I’ll glimpse and I’ll grab hold of. My eyes will cherish each word, and then the scissors will come and I’ll cut out the review and I’ll paste it into my book of writing on musicians I like—interviews, reviews, sometimes thought pieces, sometimes even the adverts for their tours or records, neatly aligned and tacked into the ring-bound thing. And I’ll keep them all there. Because I like to pour over the information I’m given and hold it close as I listen.
It will happen too in a gallery. Is that different? I will know the exhibition will feature artists from the years x to y. And I will know there will be works by one particularly well-known artist (or at least that particular piece the advertising campaign is running off) and I’ll be looking out for those.
But for the others, whose origins I am ignorant to: I crane my neck to see the small descriptive signs to the side of each hanging piece, trying, as I go, not to completely block the view of the calmer gallery visitor behind me, who is unnerved by my brash leaning. As I wander, I catch sight of the next sign and remember that I’ll want to read about whatever it is I’m about to look at. With that, I learn as I walk. But I’m misguided in my approach, relying only on the words the gallery curators give me. I hold their interpretations, their piecing together of the biographical and the art, at the front of my mind as I try to make my own thoughts about what I see. But I can’t stay away from the vocabulary they have given me. It’s those words that I use to describe what is hanging, even though those words are not my own. Would I use different words if I had not read anything about a piece of art? Would I use words at all? That’s a narrow-minded education, if you ask me.
I’ve often wondered whether I’d consume art differently if I wasn’t such an obsessive.
Rarely, I’ll listen to things in a daze. I’ll hear a name and type it in and let my ears go wherever the sounds take me. Even rarer, and I’ll pick up a record in a shop without it having sat on my list for weeks—I’ll know it got ***** in the Guardian or something and it will be reasonably cheap and I’ll think “Well why on Earth not? *****! Of course I’ll like this”—and I will take it home with me, slot it in and suddenly I’ll be listening to a sound of origins to which I am a stranger. And I’ll listen and I’ll do my reading afterwards. But to me that always feels like a shot in the dark. It’s uncomfortable.
Earlier this year I read Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, a book in which, stemming from her experiences living alone in New York, she grapples with the idea of being inexplicably lonely in a city of bodies. More so, the book is a look at the lives of some of New York’s most intriguing and loneliest inhabitants and artists, filled with Laing’s acute critical considerations of the way in which loneliness impacted their lives and works.
So Laing’s book introduced me to David Wojnarowicz, the artist whose work, as she describes, “turns on issues of connection and aloneness, focusing in particular on how an individual can survive within an antagonistic society, a society that might plausibly want them dead than tolerate their existence.” It’s a startling descriptor to have under one’s name. And a descriptor that makes you want to see the work in action. Before I read the book, I hadn’t.
It’s all very well to read about his life in NY in the seventies and eighties, the life he spent, Laing writes, “trying to escape solitary confinement of one kind or another, to figure a way out of the prison of the self.” But to treat him as an artist without having seen his artistic output feels odd. It seems backwards. To watch his video recordings, or gaze at his stark photography only after learning the ins and outs of his personal life is like guarding yourself up with facts that, when you’re really looking at the art alone, don’t matter all that much, no matter how pleasing it is, to feel like you know. And this feels backwards too.
All this is in stark comparison to Laing’s extensive discussion of Andy Warhol. For when she writes about Warhol I read with my pre-existing knowledge. I read, in fact, having already seen some of the described works hanging from walls. I read about his encounters with conversations and tape recordings having already heard some of these voices, having already watched some snippets of his experimental films. What Laing writes about him is more like shining a light onto, illuminating, things I already know. And that’s a kind of backwards education too.
I only really fell for Lorde’s comeback single ‘Green Light’ after I read Anna Leszkiewicz’s New Statesman article on the song and video. (What a middle-class culture-sap thing to admit. But that’s the power of a pop critic, for you.) In her piece, Leszkiewicz references Edward Hopper’s paintings. There is no mistaking the aesthetics of Lorde’s video as at least a nudge to the realist painter’s works of isolation, and of particular coloured light. She writes: “Like a Hopper painting that highlights the contradictions inherent in urban isolation, Lorde finds the beauty in the complexities and inconsistencies of feeling that come at that see-saw moment when the pain of a break-up begins to tilt towards newfound autonomy - when new sounds suddenly and euphorically enter one’s landscape.”
It’s a wonderful thing to suddenly feel as though you understand something that is inherently personal to someone else, slippy from your grasp, as the lyrics to a first-person pop song may be. The matching-up of this written explanation with the song did that to me. Of course, if you asked Lorde, Leszkiewicz’s interpretation may be wrong—for that’s all this is, interpretation—but it’s given the song a new lease of life for me. It’s made Lorde’s far-fetched sunny popstar lifestyle resound with my own emotional frankness, giving the relentless piano drive a strange relatability.
A friend told me he didn’t really like the song, that its heavy pop beat wasn’t driving him anywhere, that he didn’t see why its lyrics were any different from any other pop song. But I can bet you he hadn’t read the article on it. And you can bet I then sent him the link.