2016: The Strength of Vulnerability Radical softness, broken records, and the value of looking around

The Strength of Vulnerability by Kyle Harter

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the year. More from this series

On Vulnerability (“Some day in bravery/ I’ll embody all the grace and lightness”)
Cover art by Yuko Zama for Michael Pisaro and Christian Wolff’s Looking Around (Erstwhile)

It feels to me that, in the arts, collaboration and communion will thrive.

In an essay called “The Friend,” Italian philosopher Agamben explores the implications of friendship: “What is friendship, in effect, if not a proximity such that it is impossible to make for oneself either a representation or a concept of it? […] The friend is not another I, but an otherness immanent in self-ness, a becoming other of the self.” He comes to understand that two who are friends can never understand one another outside of their sharing of the “experience of friendship,” and much in the same way, a friendship can’t be interpreted by one who is outside of it because “friendship is neither a property nor a quality of a subject.” If collaboration and cooperation is going to resemble friendship, voices will meld together, they will contort each other’s speech, amplify and support one another, and in all those acts become indistinguishable.

While on tour this summer, one of my bandmates played Frankie Cosmos’s Next Thing for about a quarter of the time she spent driving. All of us had already heard and liked the album (and some of us quickly grew sick of it in this time), but it was then that I personally met the album where it was at. Among the intimate bundle of friends that were my tour-mates, I felt connected to the content of Next Thing. Greta Kline — singer, guitarist, and songwriter behind Frankie Cosmos — writes lyrics that are at once confessional and self-distancing. There’s nothing particularly revolutionary in the plain-speech, journal-entry-style musings that float atop the band, but there is quite a lot that can be said about the brevity and clarity of Kline’s epiphanies as they heed the lessons of terse, vulnerable writing by Frank O’Hara, Eileen Myles, Ted Berrigan, Kimya Dawson, Paul Baribeau, and the like.

“Embody” is an ode to the elusive quality of illumination that one finds when they gaze at their friend. Kline insists: “Sarah is a lightbeam/ From the picture Jonah sent me/ It makes me so happy she embodies all the grace and lightness.” Because we can’t examine the specifics of Kline’s claim for ourselves, we prefer to consider whether we have felt the same way toward others, our own friends. “Embody” is an ode to friendship without the specifics of the friend. It is relatable and peculiarly human in its lopsided phrasing and deceptive arrangement: small formal units, elastic pulses, and slight alterations in harmonic patterns confuse a listener from the song’s simplicity, if only for the briefest moments.

The entirety of Next Thing is built around a precarious base like this. Kline’s simple lyrics are dressed up with equally simple parts, the delivery of which, however, are intricately nuanced. Exemplary of this is the short, bittersweet “Tour Good.” The band in an equivalent to unison, following each other through expressive tempo fluctuations, feels at once unstable and compassionately united. Following the call of “I don’t know/ What I’m cut out for,” rumble-strip-steady floor toms eb and flow with Kline’s tour mood. The asphalt of the simplest rock beat is revealed to be slippery. When pressed on, surprisingly, it gives, it supports in any way it can. At the end of the short verse of a song, in rare harmony, voices half-heartedly sing, “You change, I change, hooray.” Frankie Cosmos redefines musical excellence to contain restraint and sensitivity. Next Thing presents the sound of a band moving as a unit, reinforcing and amalgamating under a steady voice with self-assured intent. Hearing it with others has always been best.

In February came the release of Looking Around, an unlikely two-track album by seasoned experimental composers Michael Pisaro and Christian Wolff. The album is the barebones documentation of an improvised session between the two, two who are not particularly known in their already well-formed careers for being improvisors. What occurs is a drifting, meandering, non-resolving expanse of indecision during which musical ideas are exchanged but not in any such way that a particular musical moment can be ascribed to one or the other member. The release is humble in concept, execution, and presentation. It is a recording in which music is not the end-all be-all or even particularly the goal in mind. In the humility of Looking Around, Pisaro and Wolff present a snapshot of a vulnerable trusting friendship.

Openness and elevation, as both occur between vulnerable parties, lend to increased understanding and support.

On (un)Certainty (“don’t forget to show everybody you’ve ever known”)

It is equally important for us to rebel against the encompassing predicate that we must all be reporters and that our success as such is the means of our worth.

Semi-satirical pop band Kero Kero Bonito released the fantastic album Bonito Generation this year. Among its many subversively witted singles is “Picture This,” a cool-minded hit about the instant joys but possible pitfalls of photo-sharing. Vocalist Sarah Bonito delivers its chorus: “Hold your camera high and click/ Exercise your right to picture this/ But don’t forget to show/ Everybody you’ve ever known.” Later in the song, she plainly references the oft-recited, doublespeak “pics or it didn’t happen,” always an insincerely sincere plea to accommodate to the demands of our stage of the spectacle: appear.

“Picture This” is a sharply uncertain query launched at the demand to be present digitally. It is a hypothetical dwelling on Plan C’s acknowledgement that “something has to be quantified or mediated (broadcast virtually) […] to be validated as real.” As a user becomes more dependent on posting (and receiving the likes and comments that follow) to interpret their life, they lose the ability to determine value and meaning on their own terms.

Facebook politics are notoriously non-conducive. Often, value is awarded to the user who is most sharply-worded, firm-footed, and armed with more like-minded onlookers. The sort of behavior that Facebook prioritizes arises out of anxiety, the kind we are forced to feel when any act of speech is not only an instance of thought-sharing, but also an irreversible and highly visible instance of identity formulation and performative representation. On Facebook, we are watching ourselves squirm under the laboratory lights, stoked on the smallest morsels. As opposition is devalued and often punished, the user enters the echo chamber and rehearses their ideology, becoming more like their preconceived self.

Dissonance is researched — basked in — across N-Prolenta’s A Love Story 4 @deezius, neo, chuk, E, milkleaves, angel, ISIS, + every1else…. and most of all MY DAMN SELF. On “Query As Prayer,” against buzzing and flighty violins, N-Prolenta declares, “I am mortar […]/ Even though I crumble/ And cling to my own body still/ The air becomes my lover/ And to it I am bound/ So stagnant, my image […]” (transcription mine, errors possible). As much as I can understand it, this query is a gesture, a focused and defiant assertion of selfhood as it is pushed out of its place. It is an expression of feeling amidst assertions that one has no right to feel such a way. manuel arturo abreu extrapolates in an article about A Love Story… for aqnb:

The music simultaneously expresses the damaging feeling of apophenia (seeing patterns in ostensibly meaningless data) and acute isolation that result from noticing the invisible antiblack underbelly of civil society. White respectability convinces the witness of antiblackness (across history and in the present) that what one experiences so consistently and insidiously is not a pattern, but random exceptions to an overall progressive context.

Uncertainty is common for me in my anxiety. The more I am told, the less I feel I know. Nonetheless, I wish to elevate my trust in those I am near.

On Introspection (“my DAMN SELF”)
Frank Ocean

On 2012’s channel ORANGE, in the aftermath of the murder of Trayvon Martin, Frank Ocean delivered “Crack Rock,” a politically charged anthem against particular systemic racial injustices in America: the crack epidemic, class divide, and state violence. Of those, he laments, “Crooked cop dead cop/ How much dope can you push to me/ Crooked cop dead cop/ No good for community/ Fuckin’ pig get shot/ 300 men will search for me/ My brother get popped/ And don’t no one hear the sound.” There is no doubt that this is a potent moment on an album that otherwise showed its singer shying away from explicit statements much larger than himself. It is also of note that this statement lands so eloquently only months after Martin’s death (perhaps the first of many public black deaths sensationalized in tandem with mass public outrage) and almost exactly a year before the 2013 formation of the Black Lives Matter movement.

From this point, Ocean’s career narrative takes a dip. In the aftermath of his acclaimed and beloved debut, he draws back from the public eye and acts with discretion. Anticipation builds for a follow-up, and of course, it becomes harder and harder to speak. This year, breaking the four-year silence, we received Endless and Blonde, two broken masterpieces of different nature to channel ORANGE. On “Nikes,” Ocean riffs and delivers: “R.I.P. Trayvon, that nigga look just like me.” Now focusing on his own transference of the event of Martin’s death four years ago — much like Obama famously did when in the aftermath he stated “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon” — Ocean’s demeanor of address has shifted from the all-encompassing analytical call to action of “Crack Rock” to a confessional attempt at relation. Ocean’s 2016 output has been noted as “eager to disappear” in the case of Endless and as “a hasty, albeit, beautiful, college final,” in the case of Blonde, which, as that reviewer noted, carried several alternate covers and contradictory album title spellings (the feminine “blonde” that Apple Music sported or the masculine “blond” on the cover).

Frank Ocean’s step out of the limelight was a broken undoing of the well-together mastery that bound together his Grammy-winner channel ORANGE, a recoil from the burden of representation topped off by a reluctance to submit to that same institution.

A similar gesture of stepping down can be found in the story of the Olympia hardcore band G.L.O.S.S. (Girls Living Outside Society’s Shit). G.L.O.S.S. moved quickly this year releasing their debut EP, skyrocketing to unforeseen popularity, and publicly disbanding within months. Their breakup letter read:

G.L.O.S.S. has decided to break up and move on with our lives. We all remain close friends, but are at a point where we need to be honest about the toll this band is taking on the mental and physical health of some of us. We are not all high-functioning people, and operating at this level of visibility often feels like too much.

We want to measure success in terms of how we’ve been able to move people and be moved by people, how we’ve been able to grow as individuals. This band has become too large and unwieldy to feel sustainable or good anymore — the only thing growing at this point is the cult of personality surrounding us, which feels unhealthy. There is constant stress, and traveling all the time is damaging our home lives, keeping us from personal growth and active involvement in our communities. Being in the mainstream media, where total strangers have a say in something we’ve created for other queer people, is exhausting.

The punk we care about isn’t supposed to be about getting big or becoming famous, it’s supposed to be about challenging ourselves and each other to be better people. It feels hard to be honest and inward when we are constantly either put on a pedestal or torn down, worshipped or demonized. We want to be whole people, not one-dimensional cartoons. […]

Thinking about this pressure of significance, and the toll of disfiguration that it plays on a subject, I turn back to Agamben. In his essay “Threshold,” he incorporates an illustration of the Flamen Diale, “one of the greatest priests of classical Rome.” He continues:

His life is remarkable in that it is at every moment indistinguishable from the cultic functions that the Flamen fulfills. … Accordingly, there is no gesture or detail of his life, the way he dresses or the way he walks, that does not have a precise meaning and is not caught in a series of functions and meticulously studied effects. As proof of this ‘assiduity,’ the Flamen is not allowed to take his emblems off completely even in sleep; the hair and nails that are cut from his body must be immediately buried under an arbor felix (that is, a tree that is not sacred to the gods of the underworld); in his clothes there can be neither knots nor closed rings, and he cannot swear oaths; if he meets a prisoner in fetters while on a stroll, the prisoner’s bonds must be undone; he cannot enter into a bower in which vine shoots are hanging; he must abstain from raw meat and every kind of leavened flour and successfully avoid fava beans, dogs, she-goats and ivy…

In the life of the Flamen Diale it is not possible to isolate something like a bare life. All of the Flamen’s zoe [“nature”] has become bios [“culture”]; private sphere and public function are now absolutely identical. This is why Plutarch … can say that he is hosper empsuchon kai hieron agalma, a sacred living statue.

We are now in a process of making ourselves much more like the flamen diale. Our culture functions doubly as a form of surveillance, not just by those who govern us, but also by all who participate in it. For us, every act of publicity, representation, and sharing is an irreversible act of fashioning the political self, which is perhaps part of why we are all so anxious.

Some might consider what I’ve said a lecture against being angry and taking a stance, but I know those traits shouldn’t vanish from every day social and political practice. I also know that my belief that those characteristics can coexist with vulnerable openness and ambiguous presentation of thought comes from a privileged position and may speak to one as well. I have taken this long form to consider things that I can’t close off and to present a survey — which is incomplete, lacking among others: collaborative practices of Elysia Crampton and Sean McCann; self-assertion through exploratory vastness by Fear of Men and Dedekind Cut; fragmented suggestions by Marissa Anderson and Tony Molina. In considering how I can leave this open, I turn to poet/photographer/musician/friend/collaborator Lora Mathis and their explanatory post about the concept of “radical softness.” The post is loosely about developing concepts publicly, about how theories can be written collectively and gradually through critique and conversation. Lora writes:

I’ve read a lot of critiques about radical softness and they’ve helped me develop my own thoughts further. When I first shared work online about this idea it was such a baby thought, yet people treated it as a developed movement that had clear, concise intentions. […]

I am sucking on critiques I have read. […] I am thinking about all of them and figuring out better ways to articulate myself. Language is important. Being clear & getting feedback is important. I’m working on things. […]

I have gotten criticism in my personal life about “preaching softness” and yet being rude to someone. Being soft is not about being docile. It is not about not having an opinion. I am more tender with myself than ever, but I also am learning to deal with my aggression and anger. I will not tell others to not be violent. I will not tell others to not be violent. I understand that these are valid reactions to oppression.

I am intimate and soft with myself and those close to me, but I will not be nice to those who are abusive. I will not take someone’s shit because they believe to be soft is to be kind, always. I will not be walked over. I will not be non-violent or quiet.

This is not softness to me. Softness is powerful. It is about healing. It is about inner-strength. And strength means standing up for yourself. It is not about forced passivity.

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the year. More from this series

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