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

The Four Humors

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

“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.

“I’m good,” I say and from the bed next to me, a flash of fang, snick and coo. “Don’t be afraid/ It’s only blood.”

Blood Bitch is good; Blood Bitch is only blood, a flash fang transfusion of 2016’s fluid out of our bodies and then back in. Blood Bitch is biting and bitten, pop art schlock high-low love: is that the inside of me in a bag on a countertop? Jenny Hval’s transfusion of lolling monologue pop and vicious pulp investigation pools and bleeds and begs: what fluids do we seek, what fluids do we seep?

Blood was the balancing humor, the circulating agent that would keep the other humors in check and would move around our inside-stuff so that we could continue to walk around balanced versions of our selves. Healthy blood is sanguine cohesion; stasis means pieces equaling each other. We bleed in health, we bleed in trauma (Hval: “The reason why you menstruate is because you haven’t conceived. A potential life died inside of you, you know?”) Pop democracy is every song wanting to be heard (“choosing engagement over nothing”); body democracy means needing every blood type to keep our collective balanced. The crisis of democracy is when choice and consent are bled against will and threatened. It’s not a blood drive if they decide when they want it; the crisis is the removal of choice.

Still from the trailer for Jenny Hval’s Blood Bitch

Our body throbs with poisoned blood. Imbalanced monstrosities prick away consent from blood, lobbing hate at the female form (“You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her… whatever”) and mandating containment (“lock her up!”). Personal democracies, rights to choice and rights to bodies, played out on a national scale, the matter of a nation electing hate instead of choice, it seemed. A woman’s choice and an election of a woman feels fractured and assaulted, with even national language regarding with a stoppage in (Kelly Oliver: “Sex implies consent. Without it, sexual activity is not sex but violence. Thus, the very term ‘nonconsensual sex’ is an oxymoron.”) What does body vigilance look like in the face of the eradication of consent? (“I’m so tired of subjectivity/ I must justify my presence by losing it.”) Blood health means: justify presence.

Blood Bitch justifies presence by flipping the consent conversation; the threat against femininity becomes feminine power, the female vampire draws blood, hers and yours. “Female Vampire” is the “transient, restless,” the transfusion of bleeding into drinking, powerless to power. By losing her previous presence as human, Jenny Hval establishes a new agency in the “here it comes here it comes here it comes” of the female as vampire and as artist, a new agent of blood health and identity. “There must be some kind of art form/ Where I can call my blood,” she wonders on “Period Piece,” and the imaginary answer (pop music) Blood Bitch provides to the real crisis (a state of wellness) is “there are multitudes.” Blood health in 2016 means multiplicity of types and voices and forms, evident in Blood Bitch’s invocation of slummy 1970s horror films and gothic pop and synthesizers and spoken-word samples. The matter of Blood Bitch denounces body conservatism by imagining realities beyond hate-mongering: it self-defines and engages in the new form, an erotic engagement in its own consent. There’s no place for despair in pop music, in big dreams and blood powers (“Never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it”); a right to make a choice means a right to fight for it. The multitudes of Blood Bitch bleed on their own terms and refuse being held in or drained (“No one ever told me or taught me not to contain it.”). Blood health is democracy and engagement and multitudes, a right to choose.

I’m here writing, working, making myself available for love,” Hval confesses, in spite of the threat and in spite of the crisis. The election is in your body, the agency in your veins. Blood health is love and pop music, bleeding on your terms, an imaginary solution to a real problem.

“I have big dreams,” says The Daughter, wiping blood off her lips. “I am valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve those dreams.”

“Drink this, my love,” The Mothers says to The Daughter, pocketing her cell phone and holding out a bottle of water, an arm for The Daughter to grab on to.

“They tell you to drink plenty of fluids,” says Parka Basketball Shorts. He unscrews the plastic cap of a bottle. “Orange Gatorade is the healthiest-looking Gatorade.”

“Drink plenty of fluids,” says The Mother. She pulls tissue from her pocket, scratches the white against the blood above The Daughter’s upper lip. She opens her eyes a little wide, feels the little change in the place past her sinuses, brings the bloodied tissue to her own nose just in time to cup a sneeze. “Plenty of fluids.” The Daughter sits in a plastic chair and The Mother holds the gene-soaked tissue out in front of her; in illness and pronouns, the blood is hers and the sickness is hers and the body is her, too. She looks at The Daughter, at the fracture trickle of blood from the left nostril.

What are you doing, my love?

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

We bleed and we leak, red matter and salt water. We’re sacs of canals and ducts, mucosae to regulate, hormones for building, acids for in-taking, and brain proteins for helixing us up until we’re who we are. The human body is art in fluidity, a tributary planet, 70% ocean. The rest is complexion and thoughts, an emotional output dependent on the washing health of the fluids inside. Good things beget good things. Hippocrates stood by the humors because it meant standing by the body: his principle vis medicatrix naturae means the healing power of nature, means that left to itself, the body is its best physician.

Left to itself, the body is its best physicians, because left to itself, the body gets sick. Phlegm is the runniness and slowness of the body’s fluids coating themselves transformed before they can get better. Like a twisted ankle swelling up, we have to transform our self a little in order to get better. Even as we symptomize sickness, white blood cells are righting the ship, always well, we’re always ill. The balm bomb of phlegm, like pop music (engagement means I just heard this song, I need to hear it again, immediately) is contradiction.

LEMONADE is phlegm for the pop body, the transformed contradiction of love-sick music that looks like illness but feels like healing. LEMONADE is the body imbalanced, pop proof that to feel better, we have to get worse first. With the tonic shock of LEMONADE, Beyoncé leans into imbalance, the choler snarl like Kanye and the blood mediation of Jenny Hval. LEMONADE mitigates rage and liberation and betrayal and sounds sick for it. Love is imbalance (“Your love’s got me looking so crazy right now”), so how could it feel stable? Left to itself, the body gets sick: “What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy?

Beyoncé in the process of healing

You can taste the dishonesty, it’s all over your breath,” sting the first syllables on “Pray You Catch Me,” and the narrative is set. Personal betrayal and feelings of desertion pervade LEMONADE, a roiling of humors that leads to “Freedom.” “Love Drought” is an elegy for our former mixed fluids, the force that washes away “Sandcastles.” Choler shows up as dragon snarl on “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” transfused to something like healing in the blood of “Forward.” The male voice is antagonistic on the former (Jack White, nasal) and conciliatory on the latter (James Blake, soulful), but they’re grounded by the lovestrain in Beyoncé’s voice, the phlegm that keeps everything grounded in healing, even violence, even pain.

Fluids get mixed, poisons swapped for salves. Flint and Standing Rock stand in for the adultery narrative, the continent and politic deceived (Jesse Jackson: “The people of Flint have been betrayed”) and the sanctity of veins ignored (Judith Bender: “We think that Iowa’s aquifers should be protected because it is water that gives Iowa the best way of life.”) Like Kanye thinning his own toxins through retch en mass and Blood Bitch wrenching the choice to bleed back through the fangs and skin of the female vampire, LEMONADE’s phlegm mandates the trans-formation of the body toward action. Flint sparks: personal body betrayal and national fluid crisis flood over into moral mandate, Beyoncé’s single voice chorused in the “I slay, we gon’ slay” of “Formation.” Phlegm symptomize sick and symbolizes the action toward wellness, and pop music is the agent for the transformed body. “We have been treated like we don’t matter because we are from Flint,” said Melissa Mays of the Coalition for Clean Water. “It’s our job to stand up and say no, we’re done. We’re not going to put up with this anymore. “I’m a wave through the waters, tell the tide: ‘don’t move’/ I’m a riot, I’m a riot.

Vis medicatrix naturae,” says Hippocrates. It’s optimism, but it sounds like medicine.

Vis medicatrix Kanye,” says Kanye West, ambition that sounds like vomit.

Vis medicatrix blood,” says Jenny Hval, choice that feels like a seeping.

Vis medicatrix phlegm,” says Beyoncé, healing that sounds like a riot.

Engagement in our selves and the things that move and move in us is love, sounds like pop music. The transformation of a life’s machinations into an art of insides means that, in the face of illness and nothing, we engage in our messy, fluid humanity. Pop music is love and transformation, of wholes into pieces and then back again. Bodies mean their matter; meaning means matter matters. Freedom means fluidity.

I’m up at the Lawrenceville MinuteClinic. I’m out of the waiting room, a now-naked body in the fluorescent sterility of another room meant for waiting — no more clinic of critics, self-examination at last. There’s a body-length mirror on the door. There is me. I see the ghostpressings of ribs, the full veins, the way the skin fits snug over the ocean of organs. I see the body, and I see it begin to shift.

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

The shifting body feels like freedom. We’re at the mercy of our selves, sometimes, our biologies boiled thin to gender and health and humor and complexion. But the promise of liquidity promises motion beyond pallor. Pop music is verb-al, the puncturing of normativity. Inside our veins is the capacity to be outside our heads; we are not inside our guts.

Entrañas begins in celebration of un-vesselling the self, the inside art of Arca’s trans-clang glinting the grazing animal want in “Culebra,” perching self-identification on cliffs of falling sound in “Think Of.” Entrañas is not interested in establishing a whole via meaningful pieces; Entrañas is its whole, every sound is its self. Balance of a self means fluid navigation, a pop music for multitudinous moments.

Freedom is fluidity, but every body gets sick; it’s impossible not to read spillage as sickness. Even if I don’t mean something, I still must matter.

From a post on Arca’s Facebook page

I’m naked in front of the mirror. I’m in front of me, exposed. There’s the exploded boils, “Turnt” parts where blood stuck earth (March, Brussels Bombing) and the gaping holes in the chest, “Fount” for inner fluids (July, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling) and the “Lulled” flesh lines etching pus where the healing never happened (July, Dallas shooting) and the bruises where metal “Clocked” tissue (July, Nice terror attack). There’s a rage and a bleeding and a riot, but mostly there’s a deep-veined melancholy, a mourning place where the black bile cries, the body leaking its self, drained (June, Pulse Massacre.) Entrañas celebrates a created self, the motion of feeling transformed free. But the trans-text pop exists in this place, the complexion in a context of a world that sounds increasingly sick. Entrañas is black bile elegy, a reverie cry of te pierdo otra vez más. Aimlessly, Entrañas is “I lose you once again,” proof that we’re always both pronouns, loser and the loss.

I’m naked in front of the mirror, and I hear me laid bare. I’m sick and I’m healthy, transforming and stuck, engaged and eulogizing. I’m Captain Lawrence, the dying flooding, “Don’t give up the ship!” and I’m the ship itself, sunk. I’m fever and verve, bleeding and drinking, healing and fighting, celebrated and despairing. Pop music and health exist as dual mirrors, each facing the other, contradictions like selves that can only look toward a future. But I walk — still I walk:”Sin Rumbo” means an end but ends with that, the devotional “pero camino, aún camino.”“Pop music’s contradiction is its hook (engaged, I just heard this, I need it again), and that’s depressive if you let it be, like health, like self. But it’s also proof that there’s a future moment, a getting-beyond trauma, and that getting-beyond sounds like a song, vis medicatrix naturae. We engage and we listen; the alternative is nothing. Love is a body, a multitude of people waiting for help, to help each other. Pop music is like love and our selves. It’s a question, technically, but it’s phrased like a statement.

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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