Friday, February 10, 2012

The Will of Instinct.

On Amanda Palmer, Nirvana, and the Language of Violence in Popular Culture


This is not about perfume. No, this is about AMANDA FUCKING PALMER (aka AFP), and intimate violence and sex/gender politics.

I remember the first time I heard Nirvana’s “Polly.” I was, I don’t know, fourteen, I think, but already deeply familiar with the idea of being trapped in a cage by someone violent who thought they loved you. FN1. I remember having a visceral and negative reaction to “Polly” in the same way I had negative reactions to the fetus tree imagery in “Heart Shaped Box.” I remember thinking at the time that Kurt was an angry dude who did not like women, and who seemed to blame his feelings of inadequacy as a man not on patriarchy and misogyny, but on the women in his life and at large. I distinctly remember having an argument with a boy I was dating over this feeling and being completely without the language I needed to express my reactions to some of Nirvana’s work, particularly “Polly,” in a coherent way.

Let me say that I know very little about the Patron Saint of Grunge. I haven’t bothered to study him. So when I talk about all this, I’m not talking about Kurt, the man, or Kurt, the artist’s intent made real. FN2. FN3. I’m talking about how I, as a young abused girl without the language or strength to describe what was happening to me, had been happening to me, was continuing to happen to me, seemingly with the world’ s knowledge, permission, and tacit approval, felt about his work in the moment.

To me, Kurt seemed angry, and the angry in his music appealed to me. The chords that struck me as wrong, however, were the thinly veiled digs at women, the idea that women were a “tar pit traps” or leeches, sucking the life out of otherwise good men, as if women are the enemy and not the trap of rigid gender/sex roles. It’s the same gut level reaction I have to a lot of Kerouac’s work. Any time I hear the words, “pretty girls make graves,” I want to punch someone in the face.

It’s possible that Cobain, and Kerouac before him, meant to put a spotlight on the ways misogynists justify their wholesale use and abuse of women rather than representing a position the artists themselves held. Certainly the history of the song’s origins provided by Nirvana’s surviving members seems to imply Kurt was more interested in understanding the psychology of someone who brutalizes another person at the intersections of sex, violence, and control than identifying with them.

Who Killed Laura Palmer?
"All you good people..."
The problem with this kind of approach to feminist critique of violence is that the work sits out there afterward, speaking for itself, without a narrator standing by to anchor it in context. It finds its way into the bedrooms of girls like me who hear it and only hear  the world’s (at the time) most popular band reveling in a kind of sadism she is beginning to know personally. I was that girl, the girl who hears the words and thinks to herself, “Is this how the whole world is? Is no one stopping what is happening to me because the things my abuser tells me are true, and this is just the natural order of things?” No amount of in-depth documentary histories or "VH1 Behind the Music" interviews or tell-all biographies will ever change the visceral experience of hearing "Polly" and thinking, “I am trapped, just like her. I’m going to die here. I’ll never get out.”

That is why I am so GLAD there are women out there like AMANDA FUCKING PALMER who take work like this, reframing and reclaiming it to show how terrifying and violent and awful and tragic and sickening and inhumane the ideas lurking beneath the riff are,  no matter how they are intended by the artist to be taken by the listener. Much like Tori Amos’ chilling rendition of Eminem’s “ ’97 Bonnie & Clyde”, AFP’s newly released video for her cover of “Polly” is heartbreaking and so resonant with real life that it took me less than one minute to find multiple examples of the ‘fictional’ events in the video happening to women here in the first world in the last two to three days. FN3. FN4.

You can see the video here, in all its disturbing and terrifying realness.

I sobbed when I finished AFP's video the first time through because all I could think was, “This is what I’ve always imagined feeling/happening when I heard this song.” Polly, the caged bird/girl, attempts to appease until she can be free, focusing on nothing but surviving one more moment.  She is like an amalgam of Twin Peaks’ Laura Palmer and Waldo, the caged Myna bird who is one of the only witnesses to Laura's kidnapping.  Both Laura and Waldo end up dead, sacrificed on an altar of patriarchal culture that still believes women can be kept like pets, treated like animals, and are worth nothing more than their purity, their womb, and their service to male pleasure.

The difference between the “Polly” story in my head and AFP’s video is this: I never imagined Polly escaping, never thought a woman like Amanda would be there to save her if she tried. I cried in part because it was a better ending than I ever imagined for Polly, and I am grateful to Amanda Palmer for giving it to me, new salve for an old wound.

Laura: The Will of Instinct.
There is one line from “Polly” that chills me to the bone because it has always rung entirely true for me: “It amazes me, the will of instinct.” The Will of Instinct. The drive and desire to survive, to move on, heartbeat to heartbeat, waiting for one chance out between two worlds, Madonna or Whore, life as a victim or death. The Will of Instinct. To keep going, to keep pushing, to never give up or slow down or give in, to have any sense of self-worth or pride or strength to fight after another brutal day.

The Will of Instinct.

I admire the generations of intimate violence survivors who have stood up and continue to stand up and fight for their lives and their humanity for so many reasons, but most of all, I admire that they keep fighting. And I admire awesome feminists like Amanda FUCKING Palmer for taking the language of the abuser hiding in our culture as entertainment and focusing our attention on it, showing it in all its horrifying and terrible truth.
FN1. To be perfectly clear, because I think clarity is important, I can only partially identify with the personal experience of this story.  I am a child survivor of domestic violence and have personally experienced being held against my will while my life was repeatedly threatened. I am not a rape or molestation survivor, though I have experienced enough forcible sexual contact in my life to give me the tiniest silver of a fraction of understanding of what the survivors I do advocacy work for have been through. I have known and loved many survivors, though, and I have lived with them through the aftermath.  I can tell you it is brutal and awful and can destroy a life, and every person who survives to go on and thrive and be good and decent is a testiment to human resilence.

FN2. There are clearly feminists who think Kurt is awesome and had a ‘feminist world view.’ The line that kills me in this article, btw, is
Many of the women interviewed initially found “Rape Me” an unsettling song, but eventually came around to seeing it as Cobain’s clumsy but well-intentioned attempt to incorporate feminist theory into his worldview.
Riiiight. Those feminists just needed to get to know Kurt personally and/or transcend their personal, visceral reactions to his songs to see that his works were absolutely intended to be feminist. I must have missed that memo while someone was beating the crap out of me.

FN3. Okay, no. The thing that kills me most is the ACTUAL ARTICLE TITLE. "Nirvana's Secret Feminism." Wow! How progressive! You're a secret feminist. Does that come with a decoder ring and spy magnifying glass?

FN3. I actually wrote an entire paper about the Tori Amos cover in college I had so much to say about, so I won't go into it in depth here. To keep this short, let me say  I acknowledge “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” differs from “Polly” in a number of ways, the most important being that Eminem was actually expressing a desire to kill his (ex)wife. Whether Cobain intended to exercise internal demons through verse or to spotlight systematic violence against women is something only he would know, though it seems he intended the later, making the intent of his work more closely aligned with Amos and Palmer than with Mr. Mathers, even if it ultimately fails to translate to into that kind of critique in the form it was recorded and presented by Cobain himself.

FN4. And let me point out, these are just the stories that make it into the newspapers and AP wire and only represent a tiny fraction of the women being kidnapped, raped, and murdered all around the world as a matter of course, for war, for male pleasure, for male power, and for profit.


samberg said...

Today shall be "Diana Wiener Rosengard Is Great" for the wonderfulness that is this post. I'd be your Valentine.

Thank you.

Diana said...

And thank you, samberg, for the work you do as well. :)

Happy V-Day -- until the violence stops.