Monthly Archives: January 2018

Concert Review Confessions: St. Vincent at the Keller Auditorium, Portland, Oregon, January 20.

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In part because I have listened to all five St. Vincent albums over recent days in preparation for the live appearance this last weekend here in Portland, I have made no new progress on the H section of my CD collection, on my alphabetical listening and blogging project that seems to go on forever. Instead, I’ve prepared this little confessional.

I love St. Vincent, Annie Clark’s rock project of the last 10 years. I love her music, but I’m also a little bit in love with her. If I were not married and if I was fifteen years younger, I might drop everything and follow her around the world. I’ve not been so enamored with a pop star since I was a teenager. She is enormously talented as a songwriter and musician; she’s got an incredible voice, her guitar playing prowess is prodigious, her lyrics are challenging, provocative and smart, and she is beautiful. Oh my god, is she beautiful.

I saw her band two albums ago on the “Strange Mercy” tour at a local concert club and it was almost a religious experience. I was out by myself in this club with hundreds of strangers and I remember that I was, at several points in the show, on the verge of weeping in the wake of the band’s sonic power, their precision performance, and Annie’s otherworldly presence.

Having missed the last tour, I was super stoked to get St. Vincent tickets as a Christmas present for the appropriately titled “Fear the Future” tour in support of the Masseduction album.  The confessional aspect of the title of this blog entry has to do with a few issues regarding her recent album and tour that have given me some pause, made me somewhat uncomfortable, and have raised questions for me about the nature of her work, the nature of live music, and the design and marketing of a music product.

So, to begin with, I’ve seen St. Vincent perform live on television a couple of times over the last few months since the new record came out. In all cases, Annie was singing and playing guitar in front of a pre-recorded musical backdrop, one that approximates in an almost identical way the recorded tracks on the record. I believed when I saw these spots that it was some kind of television studio expedient–that for some reason she chose to perform this way on t.v. Then I started to see a promo photo or two for the show which again pictured Annie Clark with a guitar in front of a microphone on a barren stage with a colorful backdrop. I was in denial that this would be her mode of performance all the way up to showtime. It was, it turned out, indeed the way she was to perform this concert–all by herself, with voice and guitar, backed by pre-recorded tracks and surrounded by a most sophisticated slow crescendo of lighting, staging, and film effects.

I really wanted her to have a band.  Alas, there was no band. I wondered if she was lonely up there. But from my perspective in the audience, was I bored? No. Was her performance lacking? Hell no. Did it sound bad? No. Was it sterile? God no. Was I disappointed in the show? No. Again, she blew my mind and rocked my world, even without a band. I don’t think there are very many artists who could get away with this. She pulled it off. The show was engaging from start to finish, visually and sonically. And there is something about the material, more electronic than anything she’s done before, even while electronics have always seemed to be in the center of her music, that may have leant itself to this kind of presentation. So, even while I was sad there was not a band, I enjoyed myself, and am no less smitten with Annie Clark than I was before.

Here’s the other thing I’ve been thinking about, especially regarding the presentation of the new St. Vincent album and its tour. I have always found Annie Clark’s persona, her vocal stylings, her arrangements, her bold guitar work, and her lyrics–rather sexy.  On this record, in the art, in her dress, and in the visuals for the show, she seems to have amped that up a great deal. When I received the deluxe version of the LP in the mail and opened that baby up, I felt a little bit like I was handling contraband of some kind; it felt a little bit dangerous, and certainly something I wouldn’t be sharing with my 12 year old son. It’s not pornographic in any way, or is it? It depends on how you define pornography. If pornography, as James Joyce defined it, is art that elicits desire, then, well, was this pornographic? This is what bugs me: I can’t or won’t tell. And I also am really interested in her intentions for this design, provided that she had any creative freedom in the matter–which–because I trust her as an artist, I like to believe that she did. Take a look at the album cover and the posters and the t-shirts: a woman’s red stiletto heels, long, pink-stockinged legs, and an ass, adorned with leopard-patterned leotard, her entire torso bent over, one of her arms and her head disappearing through holes in a wall. So, basically, the cover is all legs and ass against a brilliant blood-red backdrop. In other imagery from the album’s art are legs with vividly colored thigh-high latex boots likewise emerging from holes in a wall. In the videos, we see more legs coming out of t.v. screens. Here’s a woman lying on the floor in a clear plastic bag. Annie, for the show, is dressed in what I would call a kind of dominatrix outfit. The only men I remember seeing in the projections during the concert were guys doing yoga while totally wrapped, head to toe, in some strange kind of blue full-body socks. Why do I have second thoughts about publishing this paragraph in a blog entry? What does this reveal about me? I know there is something to work out here, but I’m confused and part of me just wants to listen to this great music. Another part of me really wants to know the significance of this imagery, and how its unquestionable kink matches up thematically with the music. Here’s a lyric from the chorus of the title song, which, even though it seems to be missing an ‘s’, is pronounced mass seduction:

Masseduction: I can’t turn off what turns me on.
Masseduction: I hold you like a weapon.

I want to say that Annie Clark is making a bold and feminist statement about the nature of desire and the fetishizing of body parts and clothing–but beyond that, I am decidedly befuddled. I don’t know what that statement is. I can’t read the tone. It’s absurdist and weird and beautiful. How are you supposed to respond? Are you disturbed or excited or both? Are you disturbed that you’re excited? Are you excited that you’re disturbed? So, finally, I have come to this conclusion, because I trust her: I’m not yet smart enough to figure it out, but she has done for me with this record and this concert and these visuals what great art is supposed to do: make us squirm, make us uncomfortable, make us question, make us interrogate what we think we know. I’m all in, Annie. Thank you. Happy to be a part of your masseduction. I can’t turn off what turns me on, either.

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If I Am Not My Body and I Am Not My Mind, Who Am I?

Sometimes I have difficulty with the more woo woo aspects of mindfulness practice. I tend to think about my meditation, for example, in pretty straight forward terms. I sit. I close my eyes. I breathe. I pay attention to the breath. If my mind wanders, I notice that, and then I try to bring my attention back to the breath. Sometimes, I notice the mind wandering and then I allow it to continue wandering. Sometimes, rather than focusing on the breath, I might instead meditate on a subject, a theme, a wish for the world or the day, a mantra, if you will. Generally, I find meditation restful, rejuvenating, leveling, grounding, motivating, a place for deep reflection, and I think for these reasons that it’s good for me. Certain philosophical or spiritual aspects of the work come to me with more difficulty. For example, this idea of consciousness somehow being not a part of or beyond my physical self. I kind of get the notion that we are not our thoughts, that thinking is a brain function that fluctuates from moment to moment, sometimes (often) without our control. While we may, from time to time, have an evil or a perverse thought, this does not make us evil or perverse. A healthy approach to the mind might be like a healthy approach to one’s art: that poem is NOT me; it is a moment moving through me. I am not attached to it. Similarly with the body. This meat and water sack I walk around in is NOT me; it’s only a vehicle, a vehicle on loan, one that is destined to break down. We try to take care of the vehicle and try not to wrap our identity too tightly around it. A difficult job, no doubt. But the body and the brain seem to me to be the responsible parties for all the stuff we feel and think, are inextricably connected to each other; when the mind is sick so will be the body. I guess, what I’m trying to put into words is the problem I have accepting mindfulness, awareness, consciousness, enlightenment as NOT the result of stuff that my body and brain are doing, as not a part of my biology. If I am not my body and I am not my mind, who am I? If I am not the one who thinks but the one that is aware of the thinking, who’s that guy? Is he really everywhere? Is he traveling in outer space? Is he connected to people all over the world, past, future and present, as part of something like Emerson’s Oversoul? Can he affect change by thinking thoughts and sending those thoughts out as waves across the planet? Is the top of my head really a glowing purple orb?

I don’t know about these things.

What I do know is that if I love myself I can love others. If I am happy or joyful I can spread happiness and joy. I think these things are part of the practice, but still, they are material, they have to do with the way my thinking effects my behavior and the way my behavior affects the people I encounter and the systems within which I operate. This stuff can spread, right, because if I make someone feel joy they might spread it around ad infinitum. I believe this, and I tell my students this stuff all of the time, that the way we think and what we believe determines the way we live our lives. What we put in, we get out. What we give, we get back. And I acknowledge that this is not a simple matter. Patterns form, some nearly impossible to break. Some of these patterns are not ours. And then there are chemicals and shit inside there that sometimes betray us. I don’t know that it would be helpful to tell a David Foster Wallace, a Phillip Seymore Hoffman, a Virginia Woolf to simply sit on a cushion for 20 minutes a day. I don’t believe that depression is a choice. I’ve had moments recently when I’ve experienced melancholy for no apparent reason, almost debilitatingly so, but it passes, and I am lucky. I have had the good fortune to be able to locate it, look at it, and, as Thich Nhat Hanh would advise, hold it, love it a little, whereby it might transform into something more life-giving and useful. So when we say, this body is not me, or these thoughts are not me, I get that. We are more  than our component parts and thoughts and emotions. We are not that guy cursing because he has to clean up after the puppy, AGAIN. And we share atoms with everybody and everything. I am the puppy. You are my other me. I get that, too. Mostly, though, what I get is presence. How am I present in the world? And it still seems to me that that presence comes out of some combination of body and brain, for better or worse.

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