All Is Vanity: Part 2
February 18, 2016 | by Alex Abramovich and Emily Barton
Denise Matthews—aka Vanity—died this week, at the age of fifty-seven. In memoriam, we’re sharing this ’06 exchange from the late, lamented Moistworks, the music blog founded by James Morris and more or less edited by Alex Abramovich. Read Part 1 here.
From: Emily Barton
To: Alex Abramovich
Subject: Down on my knees
The Bessie Smith version of “Need Some Sugar in My Bowl” is unbelievable. “I need a little hot dog in my roll”? And the whole gruff command bit at the end? How sublime and ridiculous; thanks for attaching it. You’re quite right that the emotional valence of “Nasty Girl” and “Sugar in My Bowl” couldn’t be more different; though I would argue that across Nina Simone’s work, whenever she talks about something “down in my soul” she means her hoo-hoo.
Thanks for the Wolk sections on James Brown, as well; they do shed some light on the “I’m down on my knees / I’m begging you please / I say please” bit of “Nasty Girl.” Somehow I hadn’t managed to connect the “down on my knees” of begging (whether with histrionic or masochistic intent) with the “down on my knees” of fellatio, which Vanity’s no doubt referencing. (This would, after all, be one culturally sanctioned way of proving she’s a nasty girl.) In both senses that’s a nice tie-in to the Prince as (Weird Genius Ambisexual) pimp scenario you mention, and to the question of whether this is ultimately a song about power. I think it is, and actually a pretty smart one, in that it doesn’t assert either of the easy sides of the argument (i.e., either the gazer or she who holds the gaze being empowered) but ricochets between them, which may be why there’s that infinite regression in who’s imagining what in the song’s set up. What kind of power is it, after all, to be asked to front a band not because of any intrinsic desire or even talent, but because you look the way you do? A certain kind, to be sure.
I’m thinking about that other Vanity 6 song “Drive Me Wild,”—musically it’s pretty far inferior to “Nasty Girl,” and it was written and performed by Susan Moonsie, not by Vanity herself, but I think its subject is relevant. The song’s premise is that the singer compares herself to all manner of spanky-new inanimate objects to prove she can please whoever she’s talking to. So for example, one verse runs:
Ooh, look at me, I’m a Cadillac
I’m a brand new convertible, child
Never been driven baby, you’re the first
Come on baby drive me wild.
(I very much like that “child,” which you can read either as that Susan is a brand new convertible-child—a scary notion—or in the “Oooh, CHILD” sense.)
Ooh, look at me, I’m a telephone
Whatever you want, just dial
Come on, honey, please it’s so easy
Come on baby, drive me wild
There’s that “please” again, right alongside the ambiguity of at once issuing commands and comparing oneself to a machine. One thing I’m interested in, in all of this, is that these issues are still so live almost a quarter century later; that for all the reams of feminist (and other-ist) criticism the late twentieth century produced, we’ve got not just a can of worms but an intractably tangled knot of worms on our hands here. And no, first time out we didn’t bother to comment on how funky and fucky this song is. That’s so much of its appeal—that for all its (semi-)sinister complexity—it’s also great to dance to. Which is its own breed of complexity.
I have a piece of unconfirmed trivia: Someone recently told me that the inexplicable line “un chien Andalusia” in the Pixies song “Debaser” (sort of a reference to “Un chien andalou“ and sort of not) was originally “strip Apollonia,” Apollonia being the gal who replaced Vanity when she bowed out (and the group became Apollonia 6—still referring, we must suppose, to the breast count).
O vanitas vanitatum. What’s next?
From: Alex Abramovich
To: Emily Barton
Subject: Our Love Is Rice & Beans
Em, that’s a fantastic anecdote, about the Pixies—any sense of how true or verifiable it might be? Because, if the original refrain was “strip Apollonia / ha ha ha ho”—well, that puts “Wanna grow up to be / be a debaser” in a whole new light. Not to mention the bit about “slicing up eyeballs,” which is actually the part of the song that did make sense to me. Incidentally, I spent a long time revisiting the Pixies last year, after (a.) Sam Lipsyte got me hooked on Frank Black’s solo work and (b.) the good folks at Slate asked me to write about the band, in the course of which assignment the most interesting thing I ran across was Black’s Oulipian approach to age-old problems of form versus meaning. Here’s the relevant passage:
On tour, [the Pixies] were known to play their set-list alphabetically, or in reverse chronological order (starting with the encore). In the studio, their lyrics took the shape of anagrams, sonnets, and haikus. For them, meaning was secondary to sound and syntax, and depth was an illusion—what counted was the meticulous construction of surface attributes: not the stock rock explications of what “our love is ... ” but the sharp enjambment of
“Our songs are random,” Black Francis told interviewers. “I write songs by singing a whole bunch of syllables to chord progressions and they become words.”
I bring this up, not because I, too, have been self-googling, or because I think Pixies songs are as obscure as they’re cracked up to be—e.g., “I was talking to preachy-preach about kissy-kiss / He bought me a soda / He bough me a soda / He bought me a soda and he tried to molest me in the parking lot” doesn’t seem to be too hard to decode—but because I think it’s interesting that the Pixies often did try to foil our expectations of what and how a song could mean. Try as we might to push our way into a song like “Debaser,” there’s Frank Black, pushing just as hard to keep us out (and thereby, interested).
Which brings us in a roundabout way to “the question of whether [Nasty Girl] is ultimately a song about power.” You write: “I think it is, and actually a pretty smart one, in that it doesn’t assert either of the easy sides of the argument (i.e., either the gazer or she who holds the gaze being empowered) but ricochets between them, which may be why there’s that infinite regression in who’s imagining what in the song’s set up.” That’s beautifully phrased, and just right: infinite regression, and the ensuing layers of ambiguity—aren’t those the very reasons it’s taking us two days, and six thousand words, to decode a song that takes five minutes to listen to (that is, if you’re able to listen to it just once!)? If you’ll allow me one more tangent, is it a coincidence infinite regression, and neurotic self-awareness/reflexivity, are also the concerns of some of the more interesting writers working today?
“Drive Me Wild” is another good song to bring into the mix. (I’m curious: Why are you more willing to ascribe authorship to Moonsie than Matthews?) You’d have to rope in R. Kelly—“Girl you remind me of my Jeep, I want to ride it”—to come up with a better example of woman-as-commodity fetish. And, like R. Kelly’s song, this one strikes me as especially sad. Look, Moonsies is saying. I know you’re going to objectify me no matter what I do or say, so I’m going to beat you to the punch and objectify myself. The world this song is describing is a world in which no one really looks into another’s eyes, except to catch their own reflection. And what the song has in common with “Nasty Girl” (or, at least, the interpretation of “Nasty Girl” we seem to be working toward) is internalization, bred of an anticipation which may or me not be rooted in some form of something a more religious man might call despair. Still, I wonder: Can it be yet another coincidence that one punishment for the original fall from grace was the burden of self-knowledge?
I’m out of my depth here, but I do want to address a few of your remaining questions. Re: “the knot of worms.” Emily, it’d take a better man to untangle it for you. But I’m not sure there is a solution. Members of the Frankfurt School (who would probably approve of this exchange), or feminist theorists (who probably wouldn’t) have helped us come up with a way of framing the problem we’re touching on—of keeping it in our heads, and feeling our way around and inside it. But the problem itself is a paradox—a Mexican standoff between Vanity, Prince, and the listener—in which (1.) The pseudo-literary construct known as Vanity’s existence is predicated on our/Prince’s perception of her as a nasty girl, but (2.) seeing Denise Matthews as such tends to strip Denise and Vanity both of any authentic, lasting, communicable reasons to be. Well, the collective efforts of Hélène Cixous, Jacques Lacan, and the Baffler boys couldn’t get you out of that mess. To quote Vanity’s mentor, something in the water doesn’t compute. And, I have to ask: Is it one last coincidence that Denise Matthew’s own, initial impulse was to self-destruct?
Re: role-playing and puppetry. Did you happen to see Megan Matthews’s comments on yesterday’s exchange?:
Look how nasty Prince is: so nasty he can create a woman who’s so nasty she’ll go into feeding frenzy for 7 inches or more. But she can’t be totally indiscriminate; that would cast aspersions on Prince. Hence, the longing for someone who can do it “real good.” And hence the anxiety about what the guy thinks. What is it that Prince is trying to prove anyway?
I think she’s on to something here, don’t you?
Re: fellatio. You know, at thirty-three I don’t feel fifteen years past my sexual prime. But I have to admit, fellatio didn’t even occur to me. Funny, isn’t it, that you and I had completely counterintuitive gender-specific reactions. Or, did we?
Re: Nina Simone’s “hoo-hoo.” Would you mind just saying that again?
Re: danceability. I referenced the Gang of Four yesterday and, well, their ethos amounted to playing danceable songs in which the undertone was always “Stop! The very thing you’re now dancing to is killing you!” A mixed message if ever there was one. But then, there are lots of songs like this—songs which use the form against itself. (The first truly political rap song, “How We Gonna Make the Black Nation Rise”, by Brother D. and the Collective Effort—“While you’re partying through the night / The country’s moving too to the right”—or even Young Tiger’s anti-bebop “Calypso Be,”—both fit the bill.) Which brings to mind an old Ramparts article quoted on this site a few months ago:
Rock and roll is not a revolutionary music because it has never gotten beyond the articulation in this paradox [the author’s just described rock musicians, and their followers, being “torn between the obvious pleasures America held out and the price paid for them,” but a paradox is a paradox is a paradox]. At best it has offered the defiance of withdrawal; its violence never amounted to more than a cry of “Don’t bother me.”
Paradox, paradox, wherever you turn. I’d better stop, else my head will explode, but some final thoughts before I do: Has your opinion of the song, and your sense of what it really does mean, changed since you first heard it after that long pause between freshman year and earlier this month? Do you think it’s a sad song? A vile song? I think it is, in some ways, a terrifying song. But I can’t, for the life of me, stop listening. So: it’s been a pleasure working this stuff through with you, Emily. I’d never have gotten this far myself, and, despite the stuff I said above, I don’t think we didn’t get anywhere. Sometimes articulating the problem can be its own solution.
From: Emily Barton
To: Alex Abramovich
Subject: The pleasures of conversation
The source was Amy Benfer, the arts reporter for Metro; I believe she’d been writing a piece about the Pixies and had somehow discovered this. It really is a wonderful possibility, though, isn’t it? I mean, the entire first verse could run:
Got me a movie, I want you to know
Slicin’ up eyeballs, I want you to know
Girl is so groovy, I want you to know
Don’t you about you, but I want to
I want to
I want to
I want to
Up to be
Be a debaser
Which is significantly more upsetting than the verse as it stands. It also, then, ties in to what you said so eloquently about “Drive Me Wild”: “The world this song is describing is a world in which no one really looks into another’s eyes, except to catch their own reflection. And what the song has in common with ‘Nasty Girl’ (or, at least, the interpretation of ‘Nasty Girl’ we seem to be working towards) is internalization, bred of an anticipation which may or me not be rooted in some form of something a more religious man might call despair.” Slicing up eyeballs, indeed. I’m also thinking about how the thoroughly sexualized leather-wearing girlbot-ninja-assassin character in William Gibson’s Neuromancer has polarized lenses embedded in her eye sockets. Her eyes work, behind them, but can never be seen. And I guess that as long as we have Cixous and Lacan in the mix, we might take it all the way back to Bentham, whose Panopticon essentially took as its premise that the very fact of visibility is a form of punishment.
Megan is on to something. Partly I think that what we’re all onto, here, is the simple pleasure of turning a very bright light onto something so small it may not ever have been meant to be seen. As you say, five minutes to listen to it, two days and crampy fingers to puzzle it out, and we haven’t even arrived at an answer. But, like you, I’ve found this conversation profitable. (And sometimes, not arriving at an answer is the best place you could end up.) My opinion of the song has changed through discussing it with you; I find it a lot richer and more disturbing than I thought I did, a lot less celebratory. This kind of engagement is, I think, one of the great consolations of late culture: a way of speaking and thinking and being that causes us to reconsider and grow. Unlike current political discourse, which mainly seems to ask us to retrench. (I hope I’m not flying off on a huge tangent to quote from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. I stumbled across this passage the other day: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.” I am frankly undone by the idea that a political leader could be so modest about his understanding of what’s right, and so generous in his idea of how to use it.)
To wrap up some small points:
1) It’s funny, I’m not actually any more likely to ascribe authorship to Moonsie than to Vanity; I think it equally likely that Prince wrote, or had a hand in, both songs. But that certainly is what I wrote.
2) The odd thing about what I agree with you about our counterintuitive gender responses to the “down on my knees” bit is that it would only stand to reason that straight women would think about fellatio at least somewhere near as often as men do. Or wouldn’t it?
3) No, I will not say hoo-hoo again.
Thanks for making this conversation possible, and for its many pleasures.