Jenny Hval
Innocence Is Kinky Rune Grammofon http://www.tinymixtapes.comsites/default/files/1305/hval.jpg

[Rune Grammofon; 2013]

Rating: 4.5/5 4.5 / 5 (0)

Styles: semiotext(e) art-song
Others: M. Gira, Blixa Bargeld, Diamanda Galas


http://media.tinymixtapes.com/

This album made me think of the old tampon in a teacup trick from Ghost World — remember? What made that so laughable? For one thing, it’s not as shocking as the artist imagined. Enid’s credulous art teacher praises the assemblage as “a shocking image of repressed femininity,” but 100 years after the 1913 Armory Show1, the only shocking thing in art is that we still place so much stock in the same set of strategies to épater le bourgeoisie. So, before you start listening to Innocence Is Kinky, Jenny Hval’s excellent new album, I ask you: Are you easily shocked? Much like the opening line to her excellent Viscera2, the first line of Innocence aims to appall, with Hval whispering devilishly: “That night, I watched people fucking on my computer.” I’m not sure what my reaction is supposed to be (A girl!? Watching porn!? Now I’ve heard of everything!), but it’s not shock. With her latest, Hval continues her exploration of the boundaries of the confessional lyric, but many of the lyrical provocations end up sounding forced, like the old tampon in a teacup trick. However, as with the still-fascinating fur-lined cup, saucer, and spoon of Surrealist Meret Oppenheim, it’s in her artwork’s texture that Hval’s voice fascinates.

The title track flings out metaphors and similes that similarly fail to offend: “Like sex without the body!” “Like smoke rings from my pussy!” “I am Oslo Oedipus,” Hval proclaims, and proceeds to stab out her eyes, and her lyrics underscore that the knife stabbing out her eyes is like a dick; just like dick, it goes “in and out and in and out,” she shrieks. These metaphors have the same problem as the old tampon in the teacup trick, which is that the assemblage is so easily readable3. Going back as far as Aristotle, it has been recognized that metaphor has a tripartite structure: There are the two unlike things being compared, and then there’s a third thing, which is their similarity. Whatever shock the metaphor has is premised on bringing together objects from two different conceptual domains, such as the polite dining room and the taboo bedroom, and asserting that, deep down, they are actually the same. This juxtaposition articulates a sentence — something like “the housewife in the kitchen is also a sexual being” or Hval’s lyric “I feel desire/ One I don’t know, and one I don’t own” — that might be somewhat shocking, but even as it nudges us to reconsider our preconceptions about femininity, it relies on and reinforces the assumption that gender is real. Uses of metaphor such as the tampon in the teacup posit a necessary correspondence between the essence of a teacup and the essence of a tampon, and in so doing, they harden the idea that there’s this real thing called femininity, to which both tampon and teacup point. The artwork might liberate the housewife to leave the kitchen and go have sex, but she will still be doing it as a woman — or maybe because she is a woman, and so her sexual desire will be a peculiarly feminine one — the product of, as Enid’s teacher would remark, a “repressed femininity.” Remember what we’ve learned from Hval — women like porn, too — but in positing this as something shocking, Hval is reinforcing the idea that women’s desires are essentially different from men’s.

Gender theorists like Judith Butler, and avant-gardists of all stripes, have long realized that oppression is contained the very language that we use to express ourselves. In order to express new ideas, one has to become, to some degree, unreadable. The tampon in a teacup and the supposedly shocking image of a woman watching porn: both fail because they are so easily readable as feminine, and so they reinforce the constructs of gender that they purport to explode.

It’s the lines that are unreadable, the songs that you can’t respectfully shelve next to your high school copy of Sophocles, that are really shocking, because they violate the principles that make language work, the principles that make the men’s room so obviously a different place than the women’s room. Lines like the lyric “I take off my face and torso,” from the same song. The lyric relies on metonym, which is the poetic association of words from the same domain, rather than from different domains, as in metaphor. (A prominent example from Game of Thrones is the figure of the Hand of the King. It’s a metonym, because, as Jamie Lanister puts it, “the king shits, and the hand wipes” in the bathroom, as well as in the Seven Kingdoms.) The lyric doesn’t point to a transcendental signified, a feminine essence, when it describes washing makeup off one’s face — instead, it shoots off to other body parts, in an unpredictable relationship that is just as much between words as it is between concepts or ideas. In a commendably readable passage of his own in Allegories of Reading, Paul de Man writes that metonymy bases meaning only on the contingent, “casual encounter of two entities that could very well exist in each other’s absence,” and in this play, language shifts a little bit. Meaning seems a little more arbitrary, a little more constructed. Maybe identities do not correspond with reality as naturally as they seem. Maybe women are not so different from men. Maybe Daddy should check the cache on his daughter’s web browser…

To sum up: Hey, Hval — less Coleridge, more Joyce! In the song “Reneé Falconetti,” the punning line “live bare, and barely, for me” opens up a play of meaning and sound that becomes one of the most thought-provoking moments in the album. Hval’s voice is phased and shadowed by a pitched-down version of itself4. By the song’s end, its instrumentation of a simple, one-note bass line and bursts of generic drum machine fall away, and a strange succession of sampled air sounds emerges. One is like a breath being sucked through a straw, and another is a much larger, more resonant space, perhaps the space of the installation that was the basis for these recordings. Who is bare, and who is living barely, in this room? Innocence is Kinky is based on an installation at an Oslo art museum, in which Hval was commissioned to perform a soundtrack to the 1928 silent masterpiece La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc. Hval incorporated video juxtaposing Joan of Arc’s face with more contemporary scenes of women faces emoting for an unseen audience, drawn from the Norwegian version of Teen Mom, interviews with Sasha Grey, and Paris Hilton sex tapes.

Like the actress Reneé Falconetti’s riveting confrontation with the male gaze in La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, Hval’s work is most gripping when she confronts the aural equivalent of the male gaze, as in the fascinating “Mephisto in the Water.” Upon first listen, it’s one of the prettiest songs on the album, composed of a wispy loop of piano, dusted with John Parish’s White Chalk and a simple, sing-song melody. There’s none of the lascivious whispering of the first track; instead, it sounds innocent, in a “Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia” sort of way. The listener relaxes. Then, something odd begins to happen. Hval’s voice climbs and climbs in pitch. At first, it sounds like an idle, childlike game, in character with the rest of the song, but then it begins to go wrong. The childlike melody begins to tremble as Hval makes her voice climb octaves until it cracks, the vocal apparatus fails, and all we can hear is a vocalized squeak amid a gasp of air. The gap between word and voice becomes audible as articulation is lost. All that’s left is a quavering “ahh,” the sound you make when your mouth is open for the doctor’s firm tongue depressor, the most open, receptive sound the mouth can make. The attentive listener is forced to reconsider their enjoyment of the song up to this point. This is much more interesting and confrontational than the disclosure that Hval watches porn, because it’s about the relationship between listener and singer, and not just a confession by the singer. Just by listening to the song, you are implicated. One considers how and why Hval is in this compromising position. One wonders when and how he ordered Hval to open up and say “ah.”

Hval’s MA thesis was on Kate Bush and “the singing voice as literature,” and the most riveting ideas in Hval’s work have always been in her voice. As she admits in an old interview with The Quietus, as a speaker of English as a second language, she feels as if she is “floating in the margins of the language” and works with English words with an outsider’s appreciation of their materiality: “One thing that I truly love about pop music is that I can create colors and shapes with words — a pattern of sounds where some words glow with clarity, and others are hiding between consonants.” On Hval’s last album, co-producer Deathprod glazed rainwater over improvised accompaniment, but John Parish brings a more guitar-centered, straightforward, blues-derived sound to Innocence, and the more rigid arrangements provide an unmoving background upon which to judge the movements of Hval’s voice. From the high-pitched Lolita-isms of “Mephisto in the Water” to “Oslo Oedipus,” when she sounds at times like a bereft Liz Fraser, Hval’s voice is in constant movement. It mutters and drifts, alights on unexpected, non-lexical syllabic outcroppings, or plummets into a deadpan whisper. In “Give me that Sound,” Hval’s voice becomes subsumed by a montage of blocky noise rock chunks, drumfills, and postrock crescendos, scattered, cut-up style. “I need a sound now/ But there is no sound/ Give me that sound,” she whispers into one ear, while the other ear explodes with distortion, in an interrogation much like Joan of Arc’s; a private, sublime voice in precarious dialogue with the masculine demands of social reality.

On “Is There Anything On Me That Doesn’t Speak?,” Hval explicitly poses the problem of language, power, and authority: “When I speak, I hear your voice.” Language has colonized her. In an arresting image, she imagines her body covered in “a thousand little mouths, a thousand baby birds.” She continues, “I run my hands over my body to hush them/ I cut my fingernails and cut off their beaks/ Is there anything on me that doesn’t speak?” She’s covered with tampons and teacups, but they all say the same thing: woman. How many female bodies did she see that night on her computer, and according to which fetish were they tagged, desired, consumed — Blonde, Solo, Barely Legal?5 Hval attempts to literally give voice to those labels, but finds that “When I speak, I catch your disease.”

Ah, the old Language is a Virus trick. On Innocence, Hval draws upon William S. Burroughs, but the album actually reminds me most of one of Burroughs’ most challenging descendants, Kathy Acker. In one of the greatest explorations of female innocence and sexuality of recent decades, her novel Blood and Guts in High School, Acker writes using a deceptively innocent voice that is brazenly stolen from male sources. The main character is a 10-year-old girl, Janey, whose experiences imply that the fundamental relationship between men and women is the powerful, abusive father dominating the infantilized, sexualized child. Janey’s voice is composed of a wide range of voices and fragments pilfered from culture. She threatens to creep into dreams of the powerful men in her life, and “in your dreams where you have no power, I’ll make you steal and whore,” and this is exactly what Janey does to her cultural sources, to Hawthorne, Genet, and Shakespeare. She quotes them, misquotes them, and twists their words; but, perversely, she only uses their words to heighten their violence against herself, the innocent narrator. Janey takes the voice and culture of the male author and makes it abuse her, mercilessly, perhaps in order to reveal the abuse perpetrated by culture through the ideologies of gender and character. It’s an uncomfortable and accusing read.

In the same way, Hval’s song “Death of the Author” comes across as a writerly appropriation of Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire” (a perfect song, to this critic). Like Cohen’s stunning existential role call, it takes the form of a list of victims: “Me by your eye,” “Me by your hand,” “Me by night vision” “Me, by your mirror,” “Me, by your very own boner.” The last line of the song, with the same cadence as the last line of each verse in Cohen’s original, gives the full question: “Who… do you think… you’re killing?” Sure, the Oedipal boner/knife image from this song isn’t particularly shocking according to my definition in the first paragraph, but the way Hval wields the dick/knife has a strong accusatory power. Hval plunges that dick/knife into her eyes again and again, and as listeners, we want to help her, but we also fear her, all the while taking pleasure in her vocal extremis. On Innocence Is Kinky, Hval flaunts these contradictions of innocence, forcing us into the role of one of her fathers/lovers. With the sound of her voice, she both hands us the knife and brandishes it at us, daring us to keep listening, to listen even closer. One wonders: what’s the closest aural analogue to Laura Mulvey’s famous male gaze? The male ear? The male eavesdropper? The critic?6 He desires. He seeks. He listens, with discriminating, expert authority. He makes a decision. Four and a half stars.


1. We’re a century after Duchamp now, and we’re still catching up. That’s shocking.?

2. “I arrived in town with an electric toothbrush pressed against my clitoris.”?

3. And the high-school-level poetry keeps coming: Just a sample: The crowds in Oslo are “like friendly zombies,” a lover’s judging eyes enter “like holy water,” and Hval proclaims she wants to sing “like a continuous echo of splitting hymens.”?

4. This production flourish calls to mind The Knife, masters of metonymy themselves, in whose production the processed voice of brother and sister merge, switch places, and become indistinguishable based on their sonic similarity, the fact that their voices sound similar when placed side by side in a contingent intervention by the producer.?

5. One of Hval’s most memorable lyrics, “A Cute Lovesong, Please!” from her first album as Rockettothesky, was a playful chant of “When you think of me do you masturbate?/ I want to know that I can make a man ejaculate.” In the Quietus interview quoted above, Hval observes “A lot of female artists pose like they are saying, ‘When you think of me, do you masturbate?,’ but of course, when I actually sing it, I break the illusion and people react in a very different way.”?

6. Of course, Hval is a critic, too.?

01. Innocence Is Kinky
02. Mephisto In The Water
03. I Called
04. Oslo Oedipus
05. Renée Falconetti Of Orléans
06. Give Me That Sound
07. I Got No Strings
08. Is There Anything On Me That Doesn’t Speak?
09. Amphibious, Androgynous
10. Death Of The Author
11. The Seer

Links: Jenny Hval - Rune Grammofon

Some musical ruptures are so penetrating, so incisive that we just can’t help but exclaim EUREKA! While many of our picks here defy categorization and test the boundaries of what exactly discerns ‘music’ from ‘noise,’ others complement or continue anachronistic traditions that have provided new forms and ways of listening. We consider the section a work-in-progress, so expect its definition to be in perpetual flux. Check out the section here.