Friday, January 26, 2001

Jack Fear Explains Everything! (Slight Return)

It's Friday, so it's time for Jack Fear Explains Everything—perhaps for the last time, before I turn the reins over to Tom for good.

First question today comes from our friend Grant:

How come my girlfriend keeps bugging me to move in with her? Admittedly, she is moving out of her house, but that's because she's getting the divorce finalized.

Probably she wants you to move in with her so you will be the one who takes the bullet when her psycho ex-husband comes stalking her. Stay away from them married womens, son; they ain't nothin' but trouble. If you must move in with her, keep the curtains drawn and don't sit by the window.

Comrade Rory sends this question from dear auld Glasgae toon:

What do you reckon to the theory that [the Prodigy song] “Smack My Bitch Up” is actually a study of masturbation, secretly encoded within the title as 'smack my bishop'. (bishop being an English colloquialism referring to the male erection)?

As opposed to the female erection, no doubt.

This is actually quite a complex question and deserves a detailed reply. In brief, I'm afraid I can't give much credence to your theory: it's all about context. Although a bishop has the virtue of vaguely resembling the object in question (well, the chessman of that name does, anyway), one would be hard-pressed to say that "bishop" is a colloquialism for an erection in the same way that "stiffy" or "hard-on" would be. While "beating one's bishop" is a fine euphemism for masturbation, in the end it is entirely dependent upon the alliterative context, as with "whipping one's weasel" or "choking one's chicken": and just as it would be nonsensical to speak of "choking one's weasel" or "whipping one's chicken," so too would it be a stretch to speak of "smacking one's bishop."

Of course, I'm sure your real question is as to why, in this very blog, I referred to the song in question as being "only allegedly reprehensible." Again, a complex question and having to do with affective interpretation. The band themselves have always claimed that the expression is essentially meaningless, referring simply to doing something intensely, and in a way that makes sense: in the same way that a blues guitarist shouts "Have mercy!" before taking a solo, a DJ or programmer might say "Smack my bitch up" before unleashing a torrent of beats. (I used to murmur, "Stop! Hammer time!" before I played a guitar solo, but that's neither her nor there.)

I tend to agree with the theory put forth by the folks of Chumbawamba—while their PC horror of the institutionalized misogyny that could lead to such a recording seems a bit of an over-reach, I think their assessment of the creative process involved is spot-on: the Prodigy, desperate for street cred, simply wanted a phrase that would make them seem hard and dangerous, and being laddish types and none-too-bright too boot, miscalculated horribly: subsequently they were both appalled by the backlash and thrilled with the press coverage (there's no such thing as bad publicity, after all).

In the end, though, the intent behind the recording matters not a whit: because, in the end, the song is only about what happens between my ears while I listen to it. And my affective, deconstructionist reading—the way the tune hits me on a gut level—makes it a song about female power and male impotence in the face of that power.

The message comes in the sound of it, in the production: in the long opening section, the beats build, the effects mount to a frenzy, and the male voice is cold, tuneless, swallowed by the mix—he's all rage, but can barely make himself heard above the din.

Then the woman's voice enters, and everything falls away in deference to her as she sings, softly at first, then gathering power. The contrast in the production is stark: Howlett treats her voice with great sympathy almost reverence, layering it in warm, supportive reverb, and electronically extends her held notes: unlike the stuttery extended notes of Fatboy Slim's "Praise You," this is seamless, giving the impression of continuity and boundless power. As the instruments re-enter, they work to support her voice, rather than overwhelm it. The song is a great raging beast, and she has tamed it without anger, has made it her glory. She seems less woman than Goddess.

Then she is gone and the man is back, shouting away, but in the wake of her glorious voice his bluster is plainly pointless—we know who has the real power, and it sure ain't him—then the song ends. The overall impression is that he may have gotten the last word in the end, but all for nought: he's had his song stolen right out from under him.

Overanalyze? Moi?

Finally, a trio of queries (oo-er) from the lovely and talented Zenith:

Why does 'Dancer In The Dark' divide so many otherwise like-minded and sensible individuals so violently, Jack? Sure, everyone has an opinion, but in this case everyone seems split between "laughable cack" and "sheer genius"... And if you've seen it, which way do you lean?

'Twere ever thus. Strong art always evokes strong opinions. There were riots at the premiere of "The Rite of Spring," remember? Anything that pleases everybody cannot, by definition, be very much itself. And the more individualistic the work, the less compromised it is, then the sharper the divide will be between Those Who Dig It and Those Who Don't.

Lars von Trier is an individual, not afraid to be himself (anybody who could come up with a manifesto like Dogme 95 is obviously not as eager-to-please as, say, Steven Spielberg), and is not afraid to piss people off. Neither is Björk. It's an explosive combination: from all reports, they even pissed each other off. I have not yet seen Dancer, but I rated Breaking the Waves very highly, and most of the folks I've spoken too fucking hated that movie—so I'm eagerly awaiting Dancer's video release. But then, I liked Pennies From Heaven, so what do I know?

Why does it always seem like such a good idea at the time?

Because it is a good idea, and remains a good idea when taken on its own merits: it's not the idea that changes, but the time. Context is everything, and the context is ever changing. You can't step in the same river twice, as the saying goes, and the unfortunately the relationship of thought to time is such that most ideas are hopelessly obsolete by the time they are fully-formed in your head. The best ideas are the ones that seem wildly inappropriate at the time, but gain relevance as the context catches up to them.

So do the wrong thing now, and avoid the rush.

Does life start to get less stressful after 25?

Oh, God, no. Twenty-five to twenty-eight are horrible years—you've got this stupid cultural pressure of being expected to have your life sorted out (as if!), mortality becomes frighteningly real, maybe you start putting on weight or losing your hair. the next two years are even worse: you're rocketing headlong towards THIRTY like you're walking the last mile on Death Row. Panic sets in: you're tempted to do stupid things like end good relationships, fuck indiscriminately, and buy sports cars.

Then you hit thirty, and you spend the next 365 days looking over your shoulder for the specter of Death.

Then at 31 you start to relax and think, Hell, that wasn't so bad... and I'm still the same person I was, only older and (hopefully) less stupid.
Then 32 comes and you welcome it: you're solidly in your thirties now, and you realize that you've got nothing to lose. You can safely put away the things of youth—including the fear of being laughed at and the desire to appear very grown-up (thank you, C.S. Lewis)—and get on with the business of being happy for the rest of your life.

I am nearly thirty-four, and each year of my thirties has been better than the last. I no longer need to be young or hip: I'd rather be happy, instead. And I am. So may you be, as well. So will you be. Just hang in there: Thirty is not a death sentence, it's an exit sign... and every door leads to somewhere else.

Love to you all. If you'd like me to do this again, send me more questions!

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