Saturday, May 06, 2006

Passive Snark

Idiot at work: "...Yeah, but Kanye West isn't like normal hip-hop... he's much better than those guys."

Me*: "Different how?"

Idiot: "He doesn't use beats or samples. In his music, everything you hear is real!"

Me: "What, you mean he doesn't use samples like the ones that 'Touch The Sky' and 'Diamonds From Seirra Leone' are built on, or beats like the ones that are under EVERY BLOODY KANYE WEST SONG EVER?!"

Idiot: "Yeah, he doesn't use those."

Me: "ARGH!"

Why do people who don't normally like hip-hop frequently make such stupid arguments to support the hip-hop they do like? On a related note, why do people keep telling me that only Andre 3000's half of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was good when Big Boi's cut had its fair share of standout tracks, and from this distance seems to me to be by far the more consitent record? Furthermore, why am I being such a grump today?

Answers on a postcard to the usual address...

*I would like to point out that I'm fully aware that I'm an idiot too. For the sake of keeping this passive snark-fest easy to read I decided against calling myself "Another Idiot At Work". Plus, what's the point in snarking if not to claim a little higher ground for yourself for the most spurious of reasons?
"It's funny to think that decisions affecting all our lives are being made by men in crotchless panties."

Let's talk about Pink's latest single 'Stupid Girls', shall we? I'll mostly be talking about the promotional video here, because the song... well, if I'm being honest I barely even notice that it's there. It just sort of passes me by, you know?

Most of you have seen the song on MTV by now, right? It sees Pink dressing up as various female celebrities and re-enacting some of their more embarrassing moments, while also taking a couple of more general stabs at female celebrity culture 2006. Which means that we get:

  1. Parodies of the Paris Hilton sex tape and of Jessica Simpson's 'These Boots Are Made For Walkin' video
  2. Pot shots at Lindsay Lohan's driving skills
  3. Jokes about cosmetic surgery, fake tan and vomiting to make yourself thin. More of the usual stuff, really...
It's a critique that is as tired and goofy as it is accurate. I mean, I'm obviously up for a discussion of whether or not women have to dumb down/sex up to make it in the modern world, but does that really mean we need more Paris Hilton jokes? Really?

Anyway, the video's amusing as these things go, but there are a couple of weird things about its ending that interest me. Basically, there's this little girl in the video, who's sitting in front of a TV and getting bombarded with the images that Pink is parodying. When the song ends, she is encouraged by the angel on her shoulder to go for a pile of "boys" toys (keyboards, sports gear) instead of the pink coloured "girls" toys that sit beside them.

I like the fact that Pink plays both the little girl's angel and her devil in this scenario, indicating that she is aware that she is complicit in the cultural climate she is mocking, but honestly: is aspiring towards a clichéd concept of masculinity really the only alternative? Is that really what girls should aspire to? I mean, Jesus fuck, the video ends with the little girl running out the room with an American football under her arm--does it get any more traditionally manly?

The lyrics, from what I can make out, are like the images only a little less specific, with Pink bemoaning the "epidemic" that's taking over the world and wondering where all the "outcasts and girls with ambition" are. Now, the more I think about these lyrics the less I like them, mostly because they're just not very on target.

I mean, there are plenty of outcasts on the outskirts of pop, and many of the women that Pink is taking a pop at here have a lot of ambition. It's just a matter of what sort of ambition is involved, and exactly what the girls in question are aspiring toward. Which brings me back to the question of whether adopting the clichéd trappings of manhood is really the only option available, and furthermore, what exactly this dichotomous worldview entails.

Enter Kill Your Boyfriend, a short, sharp, funny comic book by Grant Morrison and Philip Bond. It's a one-off story about a bored teenage girl who meets a hot, thuggish boy. He kills her boyfriend and then invites her into a world of sex, drugs and random violence.

Here's the girl, all kitted out in a red dress and a blond wig, just getting ready for a night on the town with her vicious deviant of an accomplice. Her life's went crazy, but it's okay--she's enjoying herself--finding a new lease of life. But for those of you who are already gagging at the clichés, don't worry, the girl knows the score and she got there long before you:

I know what you're thinking: Rebellion's all very well but does it really include becoming a blonde bimbo? I'm just a figment of his imagination. I'm no longer responsible. And that means I can do anything.
Kill Your Boyfriend is a dumb pop fantasy, and that's why hits so hard. It's a thrill ride through all the obvious territory that presents a tongue-in-cheek commentary on itself without ever disrupting the fun.

The comic presents us with a whole world of boredom filtered through the twin lenses of teenage angst and broad comedy. There are hapless parents, corrupt police officers, art students who are full of crap, politicians who have a whole heap of kinky gear in the closet... these are obvious takes on obvious targets, just like in the Pink video, but there's a cheeky wit and charm to the execution that sells it.

I mean, for one thing, there's the art. Philip Bond's characters are blocky, goofy and cool all at once. His line work is almost simple enough to work as graffiti, and is charged with all of the energy and character of the best examples of that form. Morrison's infinitely quotable dialogue mirrors these qualities, and the Glaswegian writer also makes sure that the whole thing resonates with a disaffected teenager's view of the world.

Kill Your Boyfriend's pop-tastic surface level ties in neatly with one of its most important themes: that of the various fantasy lives available to us in the modern world. Or, more specifically, the variety of fantasy lives available to women in the modern world. You can see this theme coming through in the quote about becoming a blonde bimbo I provided above. The comic walks an odd line on this issue, dramatising the thrill of giving in to various dreams and clichés while also making obvious the unnerving implications of abandoning yourself to these sort of ideas.

And this is what makes Kill Your Boyfriend a more effective critique than the video for 'Stupid Girls'. It makes fun of social roles in the same sort of blunt way, but it does it with more wit (in my opinion), and while also showing exactly what's so exciting about adopting these personas. The violent excess of its central characters is both thrilling and horrible, which is as it should be. This sort of fantasy can be fun to read about, but horrible is exactly what such extreme pop culture dreams become when transposed so fully onto the real world.

Kill Your Boyfriend also scores major points with me by making it obvious how many different possible clichés/fantasies there are out there for the taking. Here's the girl again, after the bangs and violence has settled, leading a seemingly normal life but still aware of the potentials for carnage and craziness that are available to her:

I'm a page three girl. I'm a Warhol superstar. I'm a dyke. I'm a riot grrrrl. I'm the Queen of Sex. I'm a housewife with a jar of rat poison
The sort of freedom described above seems to me to be a bit Foucualtian. The idea is that we (women in particular, but everyone really) are free to be what we want to be, within the bounds of the choices that society presents to us. This is a somewhat stifling concept, but it is still far more nuanced and, to my mind, accurate than the "stupid girl/manly girl" dichotomy presented at the end of the 'Stupid Girls' video. That view serves Pink well, of course, because her whole shtick is to present herself as a rougher, more credible alternative to most contemporary pop, but it's still bullshit all the same.

It should also be noted that imposing your inner fantasies on to the real world is probably not all that easy or any guarantee of happiness, something that works such as Brazil, Seaguy and The Iron Dragon's Daughter deal with in different ways.

Furthermore, I feel that I should mention that one important angle that Kill Your Boyfriend doesn't cover is the role that good old-fashioned love and understanding plays in all of this. While many Grant Morrison comics (Animal Man, We3, The Invisibles and The Filth chief among them) deal with the role of kindness in a world of cross firing fantasies and oppressive existential roles, Kill Your Boyfriend is notably free from such concerns. This is part of its strength (it's a very breezy and focused work, after all), but it's worth mentioning that all of this talk of taking on fantasy roles, people are still people underneath it all, blah blah empathy cakes...

More on this topic later, possibly.

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