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Monthly Archives: March 2015

“Will You Take Me As I Am,” Part Two

“An artist seizes the passing moments that many of us forget, worries them through a whirl of sensitivity and sensibility, and elevates them into lasting artistic statements.” — Michelle Mercer

Thomas Hawk Indoor Fireworks, Plate 2 (CC BY-NC 2.0)A few weeks ago I shared my obsession with Joni Mitchell after discovering music critic Michelle Mercer’s “Will You Take Me As I Am, Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period,” a brief analysis of the many aesthetic and philosophical approaches that make Joni’s music strike such an original chord with her devoted fans. Part history, part criticism, part biographical portrait, the book is a somewhat rambling and sprawling portrait of Mitchell around the making of Blue and subsequent albums For the Roses, Court and Spark, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, and Hejira. The organization of Mercer’s chapters often seems loose, even cobbled together, pulling together asides from her interviews with the singer-songwriter and bouncing back and forth from an array of tangential topics, but the bottom-line is that any bonafide Joni fan will delight in the specificity of Mercer’s praise for Joni’s music, finding a voice for an avid listener’s many unarticulated impressions. The last three chapters explore Joni’s stylistic evolution following Blue, the ways in which this defining work led her in new directions. Here’s a brief summary:

As mentioned in my previous post, Joni was very conflicted about her reputation as a “confessional” songwriter — she wanted her songs to be universal, to embody the experience of the listener, rendering references to specific events and people in her own life irrelevant. At the same time, the deep mining of self, the intense self-exposure that made Blue so aching and intimate, is one of Joni’s signature strengths as an artist. In “Beyond Personal Songwriting,” Mercer explores this defining feature of Mitchell’s sensibility and the forces that led her to move beyond it.

According to Mercer, one factor was that the up-and-coming songwriters of the 1970s, unlike Dylan, Mitchell, and Young in the 1960s, did not have the lyrical sophistication to transform autobiography into complex, universal truths. She writes that “the difference between earlier autobiographical songs and later ones is something like the difference between a piece of writing that evokes a ‘small sob in the spine of the reader,’ which is how Nabokov once described his writing aims, and a journal entry that vents feelings.” Another factor was the fading away of the 1960s counterculture — the previous crop of singer-songwriters implicated society in their exploration of personal struggles, and as this wave of disillusionment fell away, so did the muscle of their confessions.

So Joni responded in a couple of ways: she invented characters, rendering new songs more like dramatic monologues, and she recast her music in the rich sounds of world music. In the mid 1970s Joni recruited the band the L.A. Express for her promotional tour of Court and Spark, lending the album a new feeling of theatricality and artifice, in contrast to the idea of an exposed, vulnerable solo artist alongside her instrument, mining nothing more than her personal experience. The presence of a band also satisfied her new leanings toward more expansive, complex arrangements.

Court and Spark marked a radical departure from Blue — it was Joni’s first foray into full jazz arrangements, in addition to being chock full of characters, from music  mogul in “Free Man in Paris” to schizophrenic in “Twisted.” Her new jazz sound was casual, conversational, with a less angst-ridden orientation to romance. Mercer points out that the autobiographical still played a major role, though, such as with the title track, “Court and Spark,” based on Mitchell’s encounter with a crazy fan. Joni claims not to be influenced by the 1950s Beat poets, but according to Mercer, writers like Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg paved the way for this autobiographical approach, in which soul-searching produced the substance of art and writers sought to transcribe their consciousness onto the page as purely and transparently as possible.

“It never has been easy whether you do or do not resign, whether you travel the breadth of extremities or stick to some straighter line” — “Hejira,” Joni Mitchell

In “Breadth of Extremities,” Mercer charts the making of the album Hejira, among other pursuits, as well as Mitchell’s continued exploration of a familiar theme: the contrast between love and freedom, coming to terms with her own uprootedness. This is reflected in the album title, the word “hejira” coming from the arabic Hijra, referring to Muhammed’s migration to Medina. In other words, it’s a running away to find wisdom and enlightenment, versus a cowardly running away, or an attempt to escape. For example, in the song “Amelia” Joni conflates her desire for the open road, the inevitability with which she eventually leaves her lovers, to Amelia Earhart’s skyward journey, repeating “Amelia, it was just a false alarm” to mean, in Mercer’s reading, that just as Earhart “was swallowed by the sky,” Joni “spent [her] whole life in clouds at icy altitude” and it’s a false alarm to think that either will return home, literally or figuratively. Once again, a failed romance served as Joni’s muse — this time, her love affair with jazz drummer John Guerin.

Prior to Hejira, Joni experienced some marked extremes, beginning with a 1975 tour with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, featuring Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, T-Bone Burnett, and Ronee Blakely. This drug and alcohol filled “circus” is contrasted with Joni’s encounter with Tibetan lama Chogyam Trungpa in Boulder, Colorado. After their meeting in which he advised her to “just quit analyzing,” Mitchell claims to have “‘had no sense of ‘I’ or me, no self-consciousness for three days.'” As Mercer frames it, the writing of the album Hejira represents a sort of detox from the Rolling Thunder tour, Joni’s attempt to write herself back into the state of meditative contentment that Trungpa led her to.

Then Mercer embarks on a brief analysis of Hejira. She writes that Mitchell’s analysis of romantic love on the album reflects a “new distance…from her desires,” with songs like “A Strange Boy” as compared to ones like “All I Want” on Blue, speculating that this newfound distance is a “pervasive if subtle sign of Trungpa’s influence.” The instrumentation on Hejira is much thinner than Mitchell’s foray into lush jazz with Court and Spark, and the songs invoked a sense of wandering by mixing different keys and featuring the “unruly” (Joni’s word) bass lines of jazz musician Jaco Pastorius. The song “Refuge of the Roads” directly references Joni’s encounter with Trungpa — in the first line, “I met a friend of spirit” — and her plunge back into the evaluative, analytical, self-critical melancholy of an artist, leaving Trungpa for “the refuge of the roads.” Mercer writes that Hejira is “no less honest and hyper-expressive” than Blue, but “Mitchell suffered no crisis of self-exposure” because there is an overriding sense of self-acceptance, of making peace with the unresolved nature of love and romance. Mercer argues that this greater self-acceptance in her mid-thirties allowed Joni to focus outward on future albums like Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, outward toward social commentary and musical experimentation.

Mercer’s last chapter, entitled “Stuff Joni Likes or Even Loves,” seeks to dispel the myth of the bitter, disparaging crank that is often perpetuated by media interviews. Instead, Mercer explores Mitchell’s “lust for life” by compiling a simple list of her praise as a refreshing, interesting window into the artist’s mind, gathered from their interviews together and a few outside sources. To close out this rambling entry, here are some of my favorite “likes”:

  • “‘[Cigarettes are] a focusing drug. Everybody should just be forced to smoke.'”
  • “‘I used to look to Dylan or Neil [Young] for songwriting inspiration but now, there’s no one really cutting it, so you gotta turn to the short story tellers.”
  • “‘[Former Black Panthers] are my best audience. The ‘Joni Mitchell, she don’t lie’ school.'”

Pushing the Bard in House of Cards

Brian Rinker House of Cards CC BY 2.0I resurface today after too long of break from this site! My excuse is that I’ve been busy with all the details of moving. But I admit, I also have a little fessing up to do, because there’s a far less upstanding reason for my hiatus. It’s called Season 3 of House of Cards.

I was initially reminded to watch when I came across an article in this month’s issue of The Atlantic by Christopher Orr, called “Why the British Are Better at Satire.” Orr contrasts the American show with its BBC predecessor from 1990, in addition to critiquing Veep and its British counterpart, The Thick of It, as well as lamenting the general lack of satire on American TV, despite quite a few shows wheeling and dealing in Washington intrigue. From Orr’s vantage point, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are the closest we have to British satire, with their quick-witted, unrelenting, barbed sensibility.

In opposition to Jon Stewart’s fast-paced repartée, the American House of Cards is notably “declawed,” according to Orr. It amounts to melodrama, the stuff of soap operas, a “sleek, intriguing portrait in menace” versus the “jaunty” British version. Wile both American and British versions share the same, basic narrative arc — a politically mired “Francis” who is denied a much anticipated promotion, then sets out on a vengeful, transparent quest for power — Orr outlines vast differences in tone and style. For starters, the cast of the main character: Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood is an ambitious conservative Democrat whose Machiavellian scheming reads as ridiculous and absurd when compared to Ian Richard’s Francis Urquhart, a “winking, bred-in-the-bone conservative.” According to Orr, the Lady Macbeth vibes of Francis’s wife are also toned down and muddled in the American version, and his chief of staff Doug Stamper is caught up in the stuff of soap operas (alcoholism, unrequited love…) Lastly, Orr points out that Frank Underwood is one corrupt Washington official among many, whereas Francis Urquhart is a “genuine villain,” the “one dishonest man” who upsets the hapless political framework surrounding him.

Diving into one episode and then the next, I can’t shake Orr’s critique. The American series’ melodramatic tone is addictive and alluring (hence, my recent binge) but it does ring hollow at times, striking me as a little bit off, incomplete. And then I wonder — does the melodramatic style necessarily cheapen the show, or does the American version simply strive to create a more stylized, self-contained, Shakespearean world set in modern-day Washington? In a 2013 interview with NPR’s Fresh Air, Kevin Spacey talks about playing Richard III as preparation for Frank Underwood. Orr characterizes Spacey’s asides to the camera as “ridiculous,” but so are the antics of Shakespeare’s ruthless king — you could argue that Spacey is playing Frank with a similar sort of gravity and bravado that he brought to the stage as Richard. These overt references to Shakespeare, and the straightforward styling of Frank as an old-fashioned, ruthless evildoer, seem to be part of the American show’s allure. There’s even a scene in season three where Underwood is addressing the camera through his own blurry, distorted reflection in a White House window, a nod to Richard III’s hunched, deformed physicality. There are plenty of moments where Underwood drives home the despicable, tyrannical nature of his character with a straight edge — the opposite of a “winking” demeanor — not least of which when he visits his father’s grave and pees on it just outside the sight lines of the press. While Kevin Spacey’s theatrical flair for his character’s malice is somewhat fascinating to watch, I have to agree with Orr that viewers of Francis Urquhart probably enjoy his character more, because there’s so much more to mine with the weird mix of light and dark that defines satire. By the end of season three, Frank Underwood and his much emphasized, increasingly frequent asides become something of a deadbeat, all too familiar.

Maybe the caricature aspect of Frank Underwood is why Season 3 keeps turning to his wife, Claire. Orr is right that Claire is too complex to be a Lady Macbeth type, though she nods in that direction at times. Take her sleek, angular wardrobe, omnipresent stilettos, and icy blonde highlights — an image that projects the severity and singularity of her ambitions, especially when coupled with that squinty, loaded gaze, the object of many a close up. There’s the moment when a dejected Francis calls Claire for solace and she tells him she “can’t indulge him” if he’s doubting himself, and plenty of other moments in between when Claire’s relentless pragmatism reads as ruthless, as if she never shifts her gaze from their marathon climb to the top. It becomes increasingly clear, however, that Claire is not at the helm of her husband’s quest for power. Instead, she clings to their political partnership increasingly out of desperation, not because she doesn’t long for power and status, which she does, but more fundamentally because she doesn’t love her husband. Her commitment to Frank’s scheming is more about a dogged persistence to preserve their union in some form, and of course, because she’s already in so deep, implicated in her husband’s trail of evildoings. In my opinion, watching Claire evolve into an increasingly self-honest, vulnerable character is one of the most satisfying parts of season three, but it does reinforce the feeling that the American House of Cards is softer around the edges, and ultimately apolitical.

I think the most salient effect of side-stepping satire for a more menacing, melodramatic political portrait is that House of Cards completely dodges any meaningful relationship to the real-life theatre of American politics. Instead we get a stylized, operatic, self-contained and unmistakably fictional world to peer into for some good old-fashioned intrigue. The lack of a political critique is why everything feels so stylized — the Shakespearean overtures don’t push us to think critically about our own political climate, they just plunge us further into a strange, dark world with a little extra flourish. It’s simply a difference of approach, but with the recent outcry over John Stewart’s leaving The Daily Show, it seems that Americans audiences are hungry for a more pointed social critique instead of these heavy, angst-ridden worlds that ultimately function as an escape from our own.

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