Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Zoo Music Girls

Anwyn Crawford in the latest Overland calling the naked truth on Emperor Nick Cave:

It’s his transformation into an antipodean Elvis Costello – growing old, mild and respectably bourgeois along with his audience – that really makes me mad. Not because I believe that Cave has sold out or betrayed his musical talent – he had precious little to begin with – but because the deference paid to him and to his work grows in inverse proportion to its increasing mediocrity, to its juvenile silliness and self-parody. Witness Grinderman, a mid-life crisis thinly disguised as a Bad Seeds side project, with ‘No Pussy Blues’ or, even more crudely, ‘Go Tell the Women’, which loudly complains: ‘All we wanted was a little consensual rape in the morning/ And maybe a bit more in the evening.’ Consensual rape, eh? Happy thought, indeed

After being excited by the Birthday Party in the early 1980s, I've found nearly all of Cave's subsequent product, repetitively lifeless. Cave's literary reputation seems to have drawn on his musical one, and what's particularly valuable in Crawford's critique is that it interprets Cave's oeuvre across the forms he works in, so that his musical cachet is not permitted to bolster his literary and screenwriting ones. It takes adroit writing to kick out all three legs of this tripod. Crawford's flattening of the romantic myth built up around Cave--Hamlet pow pow pow--king hits Cave's misogyny.

There's actually something happening here. Something at stake. Devastating.


A letter in response to Crawford's essay has opened up a debate--of sorts--on Overland's new blog.

Reading through the essay again and now the replies to it, I think that while there is indeed a polemical edge to the essay, what excites me about it is that it opens up ways of talking about aesthetics and meaning--in this case pop music and the gendered, sex-murderous ways of dealing with certain desires--that is so rare in Australian textuality. It's ironic that Fotis Kapetorpoulos' letter attacks Crawford on the basis of what he argues is disavowal of Cave's Duende, his ineffable and unparalleled expressions of Eros. Ironic, as his critique reduces her arguments to a litany of pathological, sociological essences: puritanical, anglo, middle-class, 1980s undergraduate . . . You are thin-skinned, I am sensitive. You have a sociologically overdetermined response to great art, I have transcended my sociological constraints and just experience genius/art . . .

What I think is happening, then, is that Crawford has disaggregated elements of form and content in what is a repeated motif in Cave's oeuvre: his transcendence or, perhaps better, his transports of abjection out of the traps and murk of desire are constantly--boringly, repetitively--figured and formed through the sex-murder of the desired girls that pass through his songs. Cave's fixation is boring. More importantly, his modes of expressing this resolution of this strain of desire are not universal but just one way of aesthetically and ethically dealing with it and, as Crawford cogently argues, this formal and lyrical resolution is misogynist and repetitively dull.

The Birthday Party were dangerous, but Cave's art has become safe. The horror has become a stale cliche. Whether ironically intended or not, Cave's misogynist representations are also fixations that are stuck in a rut, his un-repressions long since thrilling.

Or, as Poetix puts it:

[T]he problem isn’t really to do with whether the enjoyment (or the discomfort) is sincere or not, but to do with whether the interplay between enjoyment and discomfort is managed creatively or has been allowed to become just another well-established masturbatory routine.

****One more thing****

To use a verbotten 80s undergraduate term, the primary intertext of Anwyn's critique is Peter Conrad's consecrating profile-essay on Cave in The Monthly. In other words, it's important, although not essential, to situate Crawford's critique both in the con-text of Conrad's hagiographic review of Cave's artistic production and in the broader network of literary journals and magazines, in which the role of The Monthly in relation to Overland becomes important.

In short, Overland is the literary journal with greatest claim to being on the Left in Australia. It's Communist Party of Australia roots have kept the journal close to aspects of the radical nationalist project that was strong in the 1950s and 60s. The Monthly, on the other hand, started as a quality--read glossy ads for sports watches and sleek cars--left-leaning magazine which featured long-essays aimed at a tertiary educated, well-off audience who were interested in areas of political and social life that permitted a complex, finely written analysis to enter into. As the Howard-era drew to a close, the magazine increasingly became a partisan organ, guided, it seemed, by former Conservative Right Wing Cold War-rior Robert Manne's vision of a more morally correct Australian liberalism. This project has seen Manne's voice and vision come to align the magazine with Opposition leader then Prime Minister Rudd's rhetoric and ideology, publishing Rudd's essay in praise of the German Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in which Rudd sought to set out his form of Christian-based social justice as a contrast to the Howard Government's dalliances with evangelical churches like Hillsong, with its prosperity gospel, and, more importantly, publishing Rudd's analysis of Neoliberalism and the Global Financial Crisis.

Rudd-Manne's analysis of Neoliberalism irks, not least because it is conducted with pious moralisms that operate within the circuitry of social-liberalism. How much a magazine of the left can The Monthly be when its central argument about the last 30 years of Neoliberalism is that there should really have been more government regulation of financial and other markets. Guy Rundle argues, in the same Overland as Crawford's essay, that Rudd's Neoliberalism seeks to shape the conduct of our everyday lives because his Government really has no interest in the transformation of society. In other words Rudd's Government is intensifying Neoliberal governmentalities. The Monthly can and will never make this sort of argument explicitly because its political essays are constrained by a social-liberalism that precludes any analysis of how market rationalities form the self and society. Instead, under the guidance of Manne (and Rudd), such analysis sees the self and society as protected from and outside of markets. Firmly regulate some of the markets, to a limited extent, and Neoliberalism is kept at bay. Nevermind that the exhortations to social entrepreneurialism and individual flexibility, just to name two Neoliberal techniques, continue unabated under Rudd.

Anyway, to see such a magazine engage in firming Cave's literary reputation is an index of how his artistic cachet has become, in Anwyn's words, middlebrow. What is at stake, then, is both the relationship of Cave's ethics to his aesthetics from a Left perspective, and practices of Left critique itself. What Anwyn has done is to perform a rigorous critique of one of the central motifs in Cave's work from both an aesthetic and feminist perspective. In so doing she has fundamentally challenged the Left-basis of--what Pierre Bourdieu calls--the symbolic capital that The Monthly and Peter Conrad claimed for Cave.

****Two more points****

Trawling the web, it appears that Crawford's reaction to Peter Conrad's consecration of Cave in The Monthly was preceded by this spray a few months back, coming from ABC radio host and former sax player with the Models (Birthday Party alumni), James Valentine. Valentine writes:

I get Nick Cave. He’s a writer, a songwriter, a hustler and a self pimper. He’s fine. He’s out there hacking away trying to pay his mortage and live an interesting life with a book advance and some song royalties. He gets asked to do this that and the other and why should he say no? He’s gotta eat. If people want to put him on the cover of the magazine and they think it will sell, why would Nick complain.
But can I just say – I’ve never heard anything he’s done that I’ve wanted to hear again. His novel was crap. His film The Proposition was OK. I’m yet to read his new book , but I’ve certainly read a lot about it already.
Such a slim body of work for so much reporting and critical comment. This is because of the very nature of his work and persona. It appeals directly to the kind of person who becomes a rock critic. art commentator, a commissioning editor.
This is because he possess that mysterious quality which was so potent in the mid seventies and eighties; credibility.
Credibility was everything back then. Credibility sought by all and granted only to a few meant that your every utterance had meaning. To be credible had nothing to do with actual ability. One had to wear only black, have only a rudimentary grasp of music and songwriting, and write tunes of great angst.
It helped if you’d experienced great angst but in Nick’s case it was enough to do a good impression of great angst. For true credibility, you had to take drugs. And the bad ones, not just a reggae cigarette in the band room.
These songs, excreable listening to most, were lauded by his followers as the most compelling utterances ever, and of course if you didn’t like them, it was because you were shallow and Nick was too much for you.
So compelling as though that may have been to the door bitches, the writers for the street papers, the JJJ set, the RRR set, I think now as we age we could apply some different criteria.
What’s he actually done?
Not that much.
Is it any good?
Not really.
Nick seems to me to be a one trick pony. He discovered early on that if you shove Jesus and the bible into your work, it makes it sound deep. Just say the word Jesus, or Elijah or Gethsemane and it sets off a whirlpool of meaning for people and you’re work is done.
His obscenity is too constant to be anything but adolescent. He has no range, he only brays.

And, finally. I was thinking of a similar Australian artist, from the same era and punk milieu, who had taken a more interesting path. I'm sure there are quite a few candidates, but Dave Graney is in many ways a more Australian figure than Cave, and a more literary one, too. Graney is a wry, larrikin version of a post-punk storyteller, a yarn-spinning bullshit artist, who has always worked at an angle to postmodern culture through gentle satire-homage of 70s and 80s suburban fantasies of cool hipsterdom. Graney, in some ways, is like Robert Forster of the Go-Betweens: actually treasured by more people because he is accessible and engaged. Unlike Cave, who presents his product as expression wrought from his soul, Graney takes his schtick seriously.

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