Feist Pleasure

[Interscope; 2017]

Styles: embarrassments of riches
Others: Sheryl Sandberg, Oprah, Ivanka

“My aim is to examine the case of a society which has been loudly castigating itself for its hypocrisy for more than a century, which speaks verbosely of its own silence, takes great pains to relate in detail the things it does not say, denounces the powers it exercises, and promises to liberate itself from the very laws that have made it function.”
– Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality

Millennial pink won’t warm over. “The color keeps on selling product,” as Lauren Schwartzberg at New York wrote in a profile of the color last month. And now, the tone of Paris Hilton Juicy sweat suits and fuzzy Clueless pens, as vivid as ever, adorns the cover of indie powerhouse Leslie Feist’s first album in six years, Pleasure, which depicts someone in a pink dress leaping through a portal to a place called PLEASURE. The door resembles the entrance to a Williamsburg watering hole that charges $10 for the fries and then $4 for the ketchup: when you step inside, Pleasure is playing on the jukebox. When you walk out, you’re broke, and you don’t feel good.

Some of my favorite pop songs give pleasure; others critique it. The best do both, thrilling me with sonic invention but also making me rethink why I buy, steal, and beg for the things I do: Janelle Monae’s ongoing reworking of the audiovisual, which sends my senses spinning. Annie Clark’s gloriously icy performances of withholding, making me wonder what gender is. Or Jenny Hval’s quivery, questioning falsetto, singing of a pleasure that provides relief from the inequalities caused by someone else’s excess.

Meanwhile, Feist spins milquetoast relationship yarns and loudly brands them catharsis (cf. “Hard Feelings: A Conversation With Feist”). The pleasures that Pleasure describes are mundane to the point of tedium, trite beyond cliché. And the music itself is, despite the strength of Feist’s voice, mostly intolerable. Over-driven guitar and top-notch PR do not a blues singer make.

With the money used to hire the gardener for the album cover’s hedge, Feist could have paid a poet double. Take “Any Party,” its rhyme and meter unbearably straight, where the central conflict is that a poor little rich girl can’t call her boyfriend because he turned his ringer off. She forgives him in the end, telling him: “You know I’d leave any party for you/ There’s no party as sweet as our party of two/ I’m getting tired of these clowns and balloons/ You know I’d leave any party for you.” She really would leave the party for him, and we know because she says so more than 10 times.

In an attempt to inject some grit into the album’s content, The New York Times has praised the album’s songs as “borderline crude with shame and despair” (a compliment); NPR describes the title track as “swinging back and forth between elegance and nastiness,” a decent, if overblown, ad campaign. For a certain audience, “nastiness” retains an empowering resonance, a ticket to middlebrow feminine transgression — though, to paraphrase the writer Sarah Nicole Prickett, most people rushing to reclaim the term “nasty” are, in fact, only rushing to claim it.

In the nicest nasty way, Feist says in an interview that pleasure and pain go hand in hand, as if we didn’t know that, as if we didn’t know that flirting often leads to fucking, which sometimes leads to feeling bad. But this is the same persona who suggests that it is possible to conjure vulnerability, or to “decide” your way out of depression, someone who is delighted to be asked by her interlocutor about the audible layer of tape hiss that pervades Pleasure (not only hiss, but also crowd noise show up on many of the tracks). Feist uses these aberrations as evidence of her production team’s “experiment of investing in imperfection,” as if spontaneity were something a synergistic startup could sell.

The vision it took to let that tape hiss linger in the mix: it’s not the retromanic, pseudo-edgy, contrivedly Authentic™ recording aesthetic that America wants. No, it’s the one we need.

This courage led Feist to recently tweet, of the album: “I was raw and so were the takes.” It’s peculiar to me that a modern recording project with access to every audio gadget since the wax cylinder could fail to mask noise and deem it some kind of anti-style, but this is the same microsystem that permitted Feist to tweet that, much to her “surprise,” NPR had leaked word about the release of Pleasure, which in turn led NPR, in subsequent coverage, to refer back to the initial breaking of that announcement as “amusingly, to the surprise of Leslie Feist herself.” Hm. I’d think a team booking international tours would remember to tell the most important employee of their brand that her album release would be announced the next morning.

The hype-cycled innocuousness of Feist’s “raw” persona is what enabled The New York Times, in their profile, to write sincerely of her “inner burdens,” a dramatic emotional weight that surely only a grown-ass person who claims she “thrived as an underdog,” and whose tour schedule includes Harvard University, could afford to posture to bear. Of the creative process for the album, the singer said: “I wanted to make sure it was a legitimate drive, coming from a really honest and humble place, not because it’s what I do.” Circling past disavowal back to naïveté, this earnest confession of pure motives left me puzzled: is the lady working us or herself?

Pitchfork holds a straight face when it writes of the singer’s “sublime austerity,” maybe not having visited her web storefront, which offers shoppers an “autographed vintage guitar” ($600) or autographed beechwood headphones, sold as part of the “Pleasure Deluxe Package” ($200).

Later, as I imagined that Pleasure Deluxe Package, nestled snugly inside its custom wood box, I got less wet. And when I listened closely to “Baby Be Simple,” its song form obediently enacting its title, I vomited, just a little bit, in my mouth. When I spat it in the sink, I looked at my bile — it was millennial pink, and it cost me absolutely nothing. I am raw and so is the take.

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