2016: Vis Medicatrix Pop Engaging in our messy humanity through pop music’s bile, blood, and phlegm

The Four Humors

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“You’re not gonna hork, are you,” says a mother to a daughter. It’s a question, technically, but it’s phrased like a statement. The girl shuts her eyes, shakes her head. She is not going to hork. The man in the parka and basketball shorts sneezes into the parka’s shoulder, chases the convulsive air expulsion with a “scuse me scuse me scuse me.” A bald white beard of a man yawns looking out the nearby window, crosses his legs, careful with the hem of his himation. I think: markedly less voluminous than the Roman toga but still elegant, sure. I think: 9:07 AM on a Sunday morning and already the Lawrenceville MinuteClinic is hopping. I think: I don’t feel good.

“I don’t feel good.” It’s been building a couple of days, the restless repositions in bed and the swallowing, the wondering when the throat pressure will turn to throat pain. And the waking and walking is all too-little-sleep and too-much-caffeine, a curdling of cream cheese spread thin across too much stale bagel. Bodies are weird, the way you can feel something twisted around in the insides, something gnarly floating poking pressure into all the parts of the belly and the temples and the tonsils. When I’m inching congested, the skirting precipice of anvilling into real illness, my brain works overtime worrying about how sick I’m getting, whether or not I’ll ever get better. I intake my own fluids back into a nostril, I drum coughs from a place below ribs: What does sick sound like?

“I don’t feel well,” says the bald white beard man, and I can’t tell if he’s reminding me to be more specific with my diction or if he’s reminding himself why he’s spending the first real cold morning of December 2016 chill on the ice of a plastic chair in a mock waiting room in an unheated drug store in a New Jersey town named for the naval hero of 1812, famous for his dying cry, “Don’t give up the ship!” “‘Don’t give up the ship!’ lives on as a popular rallying cry in US Navy culture, and Captain James Lawrence is still waterlogged dead, and Lawrenceville is still too cold in December and still too stocked with the shaking sick of waiting rooms.”

Bald white beard looks at me, cocks his head at me, snorts.

“Sorry,” I say, and point at my congesting chest. “Dramatic when sick.”

He nods. “We feel dramatic.” The Mother is glued to the blue light of her phone, and The Daughter is sniffling and standing and sitting, sniffling and standing and sitting, engaged alone in some rule-less waiting room game, and Parka Basketball Shorts is nodding along to his headphones, eyes half open and watery and red. Bald white beard readjusts his legs and his himation’s hem, goes on to nobody, everybody:

“Maybe we’re not ourselves when we’re sick. We’re our brains in our bodies, all the time, and when we’re sick, the whole vessel feels foreign. We get to feel dramatic,” he gestures at me, “or dopey dazed,” he points at Parka Basketball Shorts, “or even horkful,” he points at The Mother, who waves back, not looking up from her phone. “When all we are is a set of symptomatic circumstances, it’s no wonder that we don’t feel well or good when we feel sick.”

“Hippocrates helped propose and popularize the notion that our bodies (products of self and health) exhibited temperament based on a mixture of four independent humors,” says Hippocrates. “These distinct, almost elemental parts, added up to our krasis, our complexion. Our natural constitutions were the result of cocktailing humors, humors that could build up or leak into release, throwing us off our balance, into a state of dyscrasia.

It’s a bizarro primal-proto germ theory, a hinging set of cloudy beliefs: humorism both gives us back our agency (wellness isn’t dependent on jealous or mischievous gods and fortunes) but also limits that agency by tying our fulfillments to the natural machinations of our bodies,” says Hippocrates. “Which is how life works anyway, probably.”

Hippocrates, in the white beard and plastic chair in the Lawrenceville MinuteClinic, re-crosses his legs, massages the knob of a barking kneecap, probably why he’s here in the first place. “Investigating intentionally-vague pillars (yellow bile, blood, phlegm, black bile) for biological well-being is messy; humorism is an outdated cipher for diagnosing a body.”

“But so is to pop music!” says Parka Basketball Shorts before sneezing and putting his earbuds back in his head.

Hippocrates nods. “Everything’s moving all the time, forward in vessels called years, around in little circles called lives. Between years and lives, we make things, art and medicine, probably as an instinctual desire to read symptoms and find meaning; probably as an unnatural response to seeing something that matters in the face of nothing that does. We script ciphers, invoke pop music and outdated medicines as ways of re-balancing things that don’t make sense. We feel better. Every year and every life feels sick sometimes. ‘Life is a marathon’.”

He sighs. “Every body gets sick. ‘Imma shift the paradigm/ Imma turn up every time.’”

Henry Peacham, "Cholera," Minerva Britanna, 1612.

In Act IV of Julius Caesar, Brutus appeals to Kanye: “Must I give way and room to your rash choler?/ Shall I be frighted when a madman stares?”

Kanye stares; we stare back. Between us is The Life of Pablo, pop choler, the yellow bile of this year. Sitting in cold waiting rooms post-Election Daze and pre-Newest Year, comprehension in retrospection is tricky, but we can scrunch and recall the history of getting The Life of Pablo into this world, screaming. The weird spew of last February (it was cold then, it’s cold now; it was Kanye then, it’s Kanye now) confounded us, the constant unsettling of expectation in the shock/thrill of making things. Kanye is choler like fire, and at its best (“Waves,” “Real Friends,” “Wolves”), The Life of Pablo is the heat right under the skin, the artifact looking ahead to a future not yet apparent. Pop music punctures the time and place it exists in; radio immortality reconfigures our years into something better than they were. In the face of complacency or oppression, pop choler realizes art’s ambition to make sense of nothings, feeling (serenity, peace, loving) life reconfigured from an unfeeling world. “Thou wouldst be great,” Lady Macbeth says to Kanye, “art not without ambition but without/ the illness should attend it.”

Kanye nods, a god dream, and vomits all over Rome.

Because the same heat can burn too hot, art in illness, locomotive choler burnt up in overgrown cholera. The same February that flushed out The Life of Pablo saw the surfacing of fever, the World Health Association declaring Zika Virus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. Zika — culled from the Zika Forest in Uganda, from “ziika” in the Luganda language, meaning “overgrown” — like The Life of Pablo, is too much, too quick, life lived as burnt-up acrid reactivity.

From Kanye West’s untitled sculpture exhibit at L.A. gallery Blum & Poe

The Life of Pablo, overgrown and leaking waste, is yellow bile for 2016, pop music as literal release (“you’re not gonna hork, are you”), toxic entity to be puked and flushed and purged from a body. Fever pimples up in the ripple “goddamn” of “Famous,” over-sweats in the rank ego of the same song’s music video, peeling agency back until it’s stripped in the waxy dead flesh, feverish hallucination confirmed: “I been outta my mind a long time.” Choler and ambition mean to move beyond selves and self-tragedies, but too much heat means that the fire is under no one’s control, that it’ll leave nothing but ash. Mosquitoes are the problem, and mosquitoes are the medium for communicating the problem; pop music, like health and disease, is the two-way mirror, revealing of a matter and the matter itself. Overgrown means chokes and choking. Lack of agency and ego-devotion leads to pop music as a fever to be sweat out, the furious release as un-leasing of The Life of Pablo. Pop music as fever means art as vomit, a purging that doesn’t necessarily lead to resolution (vomit as verb, vomit as noun). The Life of Pablo and Kanye West’s performative hate/exhaustion are symptoms of each other, symbolizing imbalance in our larger pop biology.

Without waste, we don’t get healing. Without fever, it’s cadaver. We need expulsion ambition; every body gets sick.

“But The Life of Pablo isn’t symptomatic of Kanye any more than Zika is symptomatic of 2016,” I say, rising from my slouchy waiting room crouch. “Pieces of entities aren’t the sum of entities, and pop music isn’t symptomatic of historical events, really. You can’t understand an individual pizza pie because you had a piece of mozzarella once.”

Parka Basketball Shorts takes ear buds from ears. “Foul on the pizza point. Sick sounds symptomize sickness: what does sick sound like? Sick. And maybe be more specific by what you mean by ‘pop music.’”

“I think pop music gets to sound like anything, really, as long as it sounds like humanity engaging humanity,” says Hippocrates. “There’s something about its engagingness. For all the perceived and received toxicity of The Life of Pablo, it still registers in terms of a moment of needing to be heard.”

“‘Fade’ is a banger, kind of kind of,” says The Mother.

“It’s the choosing. Pop music chooses engagement over nothing. That’s optimistic maybe, as a grand state of how songs matter and mean, but songs comes from people, so why not put some faith in that art? Engagement means that pop elects its own spot in the world, forsakes art in a vacuum for a mess on the planet. Investigating its songs as symptomatic of a year’s matter is investigating a body for means of why it feels a certain way. The biology of 2016 exists in discrasia, in “bad mixture;” we examine the emerging, engaging symptoms of that imbalance, moments of crisis, moments in pop music. Congruence of those moments is made possible because both come from human bodies. Brains in bodies on a planet. With those odds, we choose engagement.”

And the sick bodies of the MinuteClinic look each other in the tired eyes, supremely proud of ourselves. The Daughter stands up, sits down, sniffles back some of the blood running slow out of her left nostril.

“I have big dreams,” she confesses. “And blood powers.”

Henry Peacham, "Sanguis," Minerva Britanna, 1612.

Bodies are weird, the way you can feel something twisted around in the insides. Feeling sick also means knowing what wellness feels like; the virus replicating inside cells, the strained muscle swelling, and the dialed-up earbuds smacking ear drums all indicate a body transformed away from a natural state. Bodies are weird, the way you can feel the needle in your arm taking blood from your neck.

“You feel good?” asks Carlo, the man who stuck the needle in my arm. He’s smiling and rolling, a brain in a body with the right temperament to be working the South Brunswick Municipal Blood Drive, but still: he’s watching the red stuff from inside me pool in a plastic bag pint.

I feel the flutter of the red stuff in the fat vein in my neck as it runs away from inside me. It doesn’t feel good. I don’t feel good.

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