Tuesday, September 16, 2014 Thursday, September 11, 2014 Monday, September 8, 2014

Lady Gaga, “Sexxx Dreams” (Live)

I loved this song when it first came out as part of ARTPOP, and I’ve been spending a lot of time with it over the last few days. At her best, Gaga makes the ridiculous seem warm, funny, and ineffably human; I think it’s a balance she struck more often than not on ARTPOP, though many people would surely disagree. This is a pretty ridiculous song, and complex to boot — to my ears, she’s rendering this full-fledged, vaguely Teutonic (wasn’t much of the album? Nein Zedd!) nighttime fantasy and contributing a sort of director’s commentary, and nesting it in a boozy recollection taking place the next night. Meanwhile, it’s veering back and forth between S&M dungeon electro and Gaga’s take on the farty, fizzy electronic maximalism that sprung out of the UK around the turn of the decade, with a vocal take cribbed from an overcaffeinated musical theatre major. This should not work; it shouldn’t even come close.

And yet! It’s the little things that keep this glued together, diction and small tonal shifts and the giggled aside that serves as the song’s hinge. That perfect phrase, “Makin’ love in my sex dreams,” pinging around the chorus; you can hear her saying it into her half-drained pint, then again with her head raised and her eyes crossed, looking at her friend across the table. “*hiccup* Makin’ love in my sex dreams!” And just after that, pulled from a different spot on the timeline, just after she wakes up: “Tomorrow when I run into you / tomorrow when I run into you.” It’s not shameful as much as it’s amused; less “I can’t believe this happened,” more, “I can’t wait to tell you about this later.” There’s also a gender ambiguity to “Sexxx Dreams” that I find really appealing: if anything, it seems like she’s singing about a woman, depending on how much you want to read into “Heard your boyfriend was away this weekend…” And while Gaga is openly bisexual, the conversation that constitutes the outer shell of “Sexxx Dreams” feels like a chat between two platonic girlfriends, one of whom happened to wander into the other’s sensual fantasy. They’re close enough to laugh about it, but it’s humorous rather than sexually charged.

I’ve had a question about ARTPOP sitting in my Tumblr inbox for a few months now, and I just haven’t gotten around to answering it; maybe this is the closest I’ll come. It’s something about why I think the album failed, why it became an all-time ARTFLOP. I think it’s complicated. I think Gaga misjudged the relative importance of “art,” especially compared to “pop”; I think extremely popular musicians in any genre are kind of like pro athletes, in that the great majority of them burn really bright and then fade out quickly; I even think that on some level, Gaga was happy to step down a notch on the ladder of stardom, to a level where she’s free to make jazz albums with Tony Bennett and do whatever weird shit she wants without feeling like she has to carry a record label on her back or drop buzz single after buzz single until one lands. (Not to suggest that ARTPOP was an act of deliberate self-sabotage or anything, just that she was content to follow her muse knowing full well it wasn’t the most commercial thing she could’ve done.) But the truth is that I like most of ARTPOP; I think most of it is good, some of it is very good, and the best of it can hang with anything else in her catalogue. At the very least, “Sexxx Dreams” is enough for me.

Monday, September 1, 2014

I bought a new bookcase at the Walmart on the other side of town yesterday. I don’t have a car — or even a driver’s license, not since last November — and while the great majority of my day-to-day activity doesn’t require one, on occasion I find myself lending unearned nobility and heroism to routine actions in an attempt to justify their inconvenience. The fossil fuels I’m leaving intact, the bicep muscles I’m building, the sweat leaking from my brow as I haul unassembled hunks of crappy oak and little screws through a mile-long parking lot towards a humble bus stop bench, all given a little extra glory. The bookcase had two seats to itself when we rode home. 

We got off the bus around the corner from my apartment, and I found myself struggling with my grip on the box. It slipped, and I stuck my right knee out to slow its fall; it slapped against me just above my kneecap, and fell onto the sidewalk. Justin was there quickly, tending to my blooming wound. An old man was riding down the sidewalk on a tiny bike with handlebar tassels, and he stopped as he rode near us. “I felt that from over there!” 

"Yeah, it stings, but it’s no big deal. As long as the stuff inside is alright."

"Well, I hope she kisses it better!" And then he rode away. 

It took us a second, but we looked at each other and started to laugh. We began to work backwards, trying to construct the scenario in which that remark could make any sense. Were we two friends doing some hapless lady pal a favour? Did he see Justin caring for me and drop a low-key pronoun-based insult? It didn’t come close to warranting that much thought, of course: it was just an unobservant old guy with a straight brain, making the kind of comment he’s made a thousand times before, pedalling away with a smile and an internal “heh heh heh.” We’re both lucky because we don’t really have to grapple with the realities of a straight world on a regular basis: we live together in a gay bubble, we’re out to all of our co-workers and friends and families, we’re rarely forced into interactions where our sexual orientation is an unknown quality or, even worse, a problem. This was one of those mostly innocuous moments — like friends talking about giving blood, like walking through a pack of bros on a Friday night, like seeing a Kickstarter for a kid who’s been thrown out by his bigoted parents float around Twitter — reminding me that much of the world still sees me, and people like me, as deviations from the accepted norm.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Anonymous said: Do you eventually want to become a full time writer?

A complicated question, but I guess the answer is “no,” at least for now. My contract with the university is up in eight months, and if you offered me the choice of a similarly compensated/equally engaging position at the school or a full-time staff writing gig in Toronto or New York, I would take the former. I think about this every single day. There are a lot of variables. In a vacuum, writing is the thing I like to do most, and it’s probably where I have the greatest depth of skill. But doing it full-time with even a grain of stability would mean settling for less money, leaving my friends and family and loved ones, leaving the only country I’ve ever called home, and coming to terms with a considerable opportunity cost. I have this nightmare filed away in the back of my brain where I’ve leapt ten or twenty years into the future, and I’ve just been let go because almost every cent has been drained from the world of cultural criticism, and I’m 31 or 41 with no experience and no savings and no escape plan. It probably wouldn’t ever get that bad, but I can see 60% and 80% versions of that scenario playing out. 

I look at my life now, and things are pretty great: I live in a gorgeous apartment with my boyfriend for relatively cheap, I have a good job that involves a lot of non-music writing while allowing me to develop my management skills, and I get to write for some of my favourite editors and publications in my spare time for beer and pizza money. I know I love writing about music as a hobby, but I have no way of knowing if I would still feel that way if I was stuck on the news grind or was made to churn out pieces about things I’m not totally invested in; I find the clique-y, insider-y social aspects of contemporary music writing suffocating and tiresome, and I only ever taste them on Twitter and Gchat. I’ve actually come to value the perspective I’ve gained from working in a different field and living somewhere other than New York, and I think it’s enriched my writing as I’ve gotten older and better. I add all of this together and it leads me to believe that pursuing a full-time career as a writer is not the best choice for me right now.

(Of course, this could all look silly in a year: my contract runs out, I can’t find another job here in Waterloo, one of my editors has a position free, and next thing you know I’m renting one of four bedrooms in Bushwick and liveblogging the Teen Choice Awards. But this is where I am right now.)

Anonymous said: do you email musicians often to help answer questions for your articles? plan of action if they don't respond?

I don’t, I can only remember doing it once or twice. My thoughts on a record rarely hinge on the clarification of a lyric or the elucidation of some theme by the artist, and if I ever find myself at that sort of junction I usually opt for reshaping my thought or taking a different angle. I have go-to research strategies, of course — spend a lot of time with their discography, read a lot of interviews, read both dated and recent non-review writing and criticism — but directly questioning artists while writing something is not typically one of them. 

Anonymous said: Is there any way VFT6 *isn't* the best album of 2015?

my face when I think, even for a second, about a new Drake album 

Anonymous said: Any thoughts on the emo revival?!?

Hmm, nothing really noteworthy, to be honest. I like a few of the records that fall under the “emo revival” umbrella, I suppose, particularly this year’s efforts from the Hotelier and Joyce Manor; they have an energy and passion that has helped them stand out at a point in my life where I’m finding it a lot easier to latch onto pop, R&B, and electronic music than rock music. But I think the best way I can use this space is to refer people to what Ian wrote about this particular batch of bands and records for the Pitch a few days ago, especially since he’s the critic who alerted many people to the existence and quality of these records in the first place. He dismantles the flawed concept of the “emo revival” with the same intensity and spirit that makes a song like "End of the Summer" worthwhile.

Anonymous said: How long does it take you to write a typical review?

I think I answered something like this a few months ago, but my work habits might’ve changed, so I’ll just give it another go. I usually spread the composition of any piece, review or essay or whatever, out over two nights, or two distinct sessions. First, I pour out anything and everything I’d like to say about the topic into quick and dirty point form notes, without filtering or focusing on cohesion or structure. This usually takes no more than half an hour. When I come back a day (or a few hours) later, I write the piece in order from beginning to end, building from the notes I took before and editing and rearranging as I go along. The time required depends on my level of focus, interest in the topic, and the length of the piece, but I’d say it usually takes anywhere from one to three hours. 

Sometimes I procrastinate and put myself in a bad spot, and I have to skip the notes phase and write the whole thing from scratch in one sitting. This doesn’t add much to the overall time required, but I’m usually less happy with the final product. To be honest, I feel like I’ve done 70% of the work by the time I sit down to spit up notes or actually write the piece. Once I get an assignment or land a pitch, I can’t stop thinking about the subject, and I do a lot of the planning internally: figuring out structure, memorizing little turns of phrase, refining ideas and thoughts, etc.