Revisited is a series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago. Here, Sarah Menkedick revisits Louise Erdrich’s memoir, The Blue Jay’s Dance.
Nine weeks into my pregnancy, in the middle of an Ohio woods lit gold with fall, I sat in a small, dark cabin and wept. I had no idea how to proceed and I also understood with a wrenching clarity that I could not turn back. I had no model for pregnancy beyond the asexual lady on the cover of What to Expect When You’re Expecting, clad in neutral sweater and slacks, plain-faced in her rocking chair, an emblem of the dull, docile femininity demanded of American mothers. I was terrified of her blandness and of my own obsequiousness to that book, my careful noting of the iron content in dried fruit and my newfound pedantry about pasteurization. After a decade spent trying to prove my exceptionality, I found myself, in October of 2013, flailing in my newly discovered ordinariness. I felt my life, my identity, my future like shattered glass at my feet.
I took a shower to calm myself and then, hair wet and sick at the smell of shampoo, I ran the five hundred feet from the cabin down to my parents’ house, where I sat on the couch with my stepmother and let loose with frightened sobs. She knew not to attempt rescue, to soothe me with platitudes or plead a strong case for the valor of motherhood. Instead, she sat quietly with my terrible uncertainty on a sunny fall morning and did not turn away. And then she recommended Louise Erdrich’s The Blue Jay’s Dance. She had read and loved that book when my brother and I were little. I believe she understood that seeing motherhood through the eyes of a writer would validate and ground it for me in a way that nothing else could. Read More
- When Huey Lewis sang, in 1983, that he wanted a new drug, someone should’ve told him to look in the mirror. He was the drug all along! His soft, edgeless sound … his narcotic, synthetic, placid distance … America wanted Huey Lewis in pill form. Thirty years later, pop music’s performers are better looking, its production styles silkier, and its sonics deep enough to swim in, but a kind of Charmin toilet-paper softness is at the center of every song again. Chris Richards argues that the sound of today’s “pill pop” can be traced to the rise of Xanax and Percocet—that we want our music, like our increasingly vast pharmacopeia, to dampen any distress signals: “It’s a smoothness, a softness, a steadiness. An aversion to unanticipated left turns. It isn’t new, but it’s increasingly everywhere. You can hear it in the Weeknd’s demulcent falsetto, in Rihanna’s unruffled cool, in Drake’s creamier verses, even in Justin Bieber’s buffed edges … In that sense, the pill-pop aesthetic and the streaming experience go hand-in-hand. Crafting a hit single with sleek synthesizers, pillowy electronic drums and Auto-Tuned purrs might be enough to get you in the game, but it isn’t enough to win. Dominance belongs to those superstars willing to replicate their softness in abundance, and then roll it out on the streaming platforms … the anxiety-smothering sound of pill-pop is bound to help define this moment in our cultural memory—the same way late-sixties rock-and-roll still pulses like an LSD vision, or the way mid-eighties hair-metal still screams like cocaine.”
- Martin Herbert’s new essay collection, Tell Them I Said No, looks at artists who’ve shunned the self-promotion and ceaseless glad-handing that have overtaken the profession. Hettie Judah writes in her review, “Herbert examines ten artists who have withdrawn, some in extreme ways, from the self-promotion and courting of celebrity that is bundled up with our understanding of art-world success. Here we find Lutz Bacher, who assumed a near invisible, gender-ambiguous identity; Cady Noland, who ceased making art despite acclaim, and now monitors and bedevils anyone seeking to sell or show her work; and Stanley Brouwn, who shunned photographic documentation and recordings, and once had all the copies of a book featuring images of his performances destroyed … In 1983, David Hammons sold snowballs of various sizes off a pavement pitch in downtown Manhattan, in an event titled the the Bliz-aard Ball Sale. A few years later, in a rare interview, he detailed his objection to the gallery-visiting public. He thought that audience was ‘overly educated, it’s conservative, it’s out to criticize and not to understand, and it never has any fun. Why should I spend my time playing to that audience?’ ”
Megan Mayhew Bergman’s column is about naturalism. This week, she discusses how women, often excluded from adventure narratives, carve out their own heroic space.
It’s February 1959. Marilyn Monroe and Isak Dinesen have joined Carson McCullers for lunch at her home on the Hudson River in Nyack, New York. A photograph from that day shows Marilyn and Carson leaning into each other. Isak, invited to America by the Ford Foundation for what would be her first and last visit, toasts Arthur Miller, who’s nearly out of the frame.
Carson wears all black and a depressed demeanor. Marilyn, in fur and a plunging neckline, tells a story about finishing pasta with a blow-dryer. Isak’s cheekbones announce themselves underneath the hem of her turban; she recalls the first time she killed a lion and ingests little more that day than oysters, grapes, and amphetamines. In eight years they will all be dead.
For me, the picture is like looking at the fractal nature of womanhood: something carnal, intellectual, and willful existing inside of one body. Internal conflicts shaped Monroe, McCullers, and Dinesen as creators. Marilyn aspired to make her own films and control her image while negotiating a growing dependence on pills and fear of abandonment. McCullers, broken down by seizures, divorce, and addiction, continued to write in the shadow of the masterpiece she wrote at twenty-two. Dinesen, brave enough to face down a lion and manage a coffee farm outside of Nairobi, began to starve and diminish herself. Simone de Beauvoir wrote that “all oppression creates a state of war”—and living in a state of war is depleting, as one tries to negotiate what she owes herself against what the world wants to collect. Read More
“I could live at MoPOP,” the French cartoonist Pénélope Bagieu tells me. She has just returned from Seattle, where she debuted her new biography, California Dreamin’, at the Emerald City Comicon. While there, she took in the Museum of Pop Culture: “My fascination is triggered by all the relationship drama, the rock ’n’ roll anecdotes where everyone takes the stage angry, fighting behind the curtains.” As a child, in Paris, she and her sister drew comics about Freddie Mercury, her “childhood icon,” hand-making dozens of booklets about the members of Queen living in a fantasy communal house.
Mike Dawson got to Mercury first—his graphic memoir, Freddie and Me, was published in 2008—but there’s something of a recent trend of French comic books about dead American musicians, with Nicolas Otero’s broody vision of Cobain, Mezzo and J. M. Dupont’s woodcut rendering of Robert Johnson, Philippe Chanoinat and Fabrice Le Henanff’s ode to Elvis, and now Bagieu’s energetic portrait of Cass Elliot. In California Dreamin’, Cass is imagined in her formative years, as Ellen Cohen, before she became Mama Cass of the Mamas and the Papas (who really did live in a communal house and were consumed by intergroup romance and betrayal). The book closes before the birth of the daughter or her untimely death. I offer Bagieu my notion of Cass as yet another “tragic figure” of rock fame, but she dismisses it. Her Cass is unapologetic; the book is bursting with her talent, ambition, and drive—and her unrequited loves, which help propel the plot.
The book is also very much a celebration of Cass’s beauty and her music, which often intertwine visually by way of Bagieu’s curlicue lines and handwritten text, as when the familiar lyrics “Allll the leaves are brown … ” swirl together with cigarette smoke. Bagieu’s drawings are superlative: soft pencil lines that convey detail without constraining her figures and that animate the characters’ exuberant facial expressions.
She is popular in France for her comics series “Les Culottées” in the newspaper Le Monde, charming portraits of women throughout history—Mae Jemison, Peggy Guggenheim, Hedy Lamarr, to name a few—whose accomplishments have been obscured. Cass Elliot’s story, Bagieu declares, likewise “needed to be told.” Read More
I never minded being thought of as a pop star. People have always thought I wanted to be seen as a serious musician, but I didn’t, I just wanted people to know that I was absolutely serious about pop music.
It was no Alvin Ailey dance class. Several of us, with teeth in braces and hair pulled back into tight buns, lined up in the corner of the studio, with its splintered hardwoods and floor-to-ceiling mirrors. The instructor put on Wham’s “I’m Your Man” and we cut across the space two by two, hoisting our legs on the beat in grand battements, compromising our posture and smacking gum.
I’ll be your boy, I’ll be your man … I’ll be your friend, I’ll be your toy, George Michael urges at the end.
Because I was young, naive, and lived in the Reagan-era South, I took these invitations into the world of heteronormative sex at face value. I missed any whiff of insistence, darkness, or double entendre. I readjusted my floral leotard, which had gathered somewhere unseemly, and high-kicked my way to the other side of the room. We came to the center of the studio for pelvic isolations, thrusting our hips side to side, then forward, trying not to laugh out loud as we caught one another’s eye. Read More