A weekend culture round-up
I’m sorry for the late post. Not to get too personal, but now that I’m in my 30s I have a host of problems like lower back issues and so yesterday I had a cortisone injection in my spin. As I was recovering, I didn’t spend time to sit down and type out a Friday newsletter. But still here I am typing not just out of obligation but also out of a sense of trying to get out something that has been pulsating in my body the past few days. There always comes a time as a writer, an artist, when you question everything you’ve put on the page and wonder if you are saying anything at all of gravitas.
I suppose that is something that happens to me whenever I read the work of Joan Didion and become briefly obsessed with her prose, the somberness in her tone, her skill at observing the world. This was spurred by the absurdly comical interview with her in Time this week, that I already addressed on this week of Keep It. Which in turn spurred a rewatch of the spectacularly insightful 2017 documentary The Center Will Not Hold that has a much more substantive conversation with Didion, but I don’t particularly believe either pieces are at odds with one another. They are the same human. At times we are thoughtful and reflective of our past, at other times we are terse and uneasy with it. By my nature, I have observed the world but I also crave being alone, so I often feel like I come up short when I’m asked to share my own insights on society and the world we exist in. From a young age I retreated into fantasy worlds of fiction, television, film, art, and music. I’m often not sure I exist within the real world much at times and I’ve become increasingly saddened by this lack of connection I feel with other bodies that occupy the same space and time as me. Nevertheless, this piece on Didion, “What We Get Wrong About Joan Didion,” from Nathan Heller in The New Yorker moved me.
Late last night I learned that DJ and producer and performer Sophie died from a sudden accident in Athens at the age of 34. I won’t pretend to be in the top tier of Sophie’s fans, but I do recognize her as not only a pop iconoclast but also someone who deeply respected the art form. My first introduction to her was at a YOLA DíA in 2019, the inaugural music festival from Yola Mezcal, on the occasion of heading there to witness my first Megan thee Stallion live performance. My best friend Royce took me Sophie before the set and while I was familiar with the music, I was entranced and drunk and on enough acid that Sophie’s DJ set felt like a bit of magic seeping through the bright sunlight of the day. He insisted, as he tends to do when introducing me to music in a setting amenable to my tastes, that “this isn’t like a normal Sophie show.” Later I witnessed a “normal” Sophie show (after we’d attended a perfectly quaint Kasey Musgraves concert at the Greek Theatre) in some downtown Los Angeles music space. It was dark, it was sweaty, and there was a mosh pit but it didn’t feel like the first one I experienced (a raucous Lollapalooza mosh pit during a Red Hot Chili Peppers set). It felt almost choreographed. It wasn’t maniac. And Sophie’s set was absolutely a transcendent experience I will never forget—and that is not just the molly I was on speaking. It also seemed to me that moment wasn’t particularly different than the daytime show, but it also reminds me that most people think of me as a person who balks at close contact with other human beings. Which is not untrue. But I did feel comfortable. Because as I said, much has been written about how Sophie changed the pop music landscape and pushed it into a future that it still has not fully realized, but damn, she loved the music too. This I knew, when in the middle of her set she played Cassie’s 2006 single “Me & U” and several Megan thee Stallion songs.
This morning I read a December 7, 2017 piece from Sasha Geffen in Vulture titled “Sophie Can Show You the World.” I want to draw attention to this excerpt:
“A lot of people are interested in re-creating an idea of the past, like the post-punk era or something, and would view this kind of thing as less authentic,” she says. “I think being completely authentic about the time you live in is something that I would view as a career-long objective — to find out what is authentically this moment.”
To Sophie, carving out havens in which it’s easy to pretend the far-reaching effects of late capitalism don’t exist is less interesting than meeting the far-reaching effects of late capitalism head-on. In an early interview, she offered “advertising” when asked about the genre of her music, and in 2015, her answer became literally true: a McDonald’s web spot used a clip of her song “Lemonade” to sell lemonade. “People were furious,” she says. “But I don’t think that compromises anything in the music. If it’s used in that context, it doesn’t change my intention of making it. If you can do two things with it, give it meaning for yourself according to the perspectives you want to share and also have it function on the mass market, and therefore expose your message to more people in a less elitist context, then that is an ideal place to be. An experimental idea doesn’t have to be separated from a mainstream context. The really exciting thing is where those two things are together. That’s where you can get real change.”
“When I was doing the first Sophie music, I thought I’d like to place it in that context because I wanted to live in the real world,” she says. “I don’t want it to be this elitist, academic thing, with only people from a certain sect listening to it. That’s not my intention. I want it to interact and have a life in the real world, as I see it, and communicate within that context.”
As I see so many people I love sharing how Sophie made them feel, how much they felt because of Sophie, a brilliant artist who is also trans, I thought of words from my friend Angelica Ross: "Transition is not just an individual transition, but you will realize that when you change… so does your environment. It is one of things that because butterflies are so beautiful, we get into how beautiful they are. Trans and gender non-conforming folks are your closest proximity to something that deep, profound, and miraculous of a change. And if you’re privileged enough, to be close enough to someone who is going through that kind of change... you too will be changed by that, if you allow yourself to be.”
This morning I sat in bed also reading through Kurt Cobain’s Journals, which I received as a Christmas gift. There’s nothing that makes you feel all at once completely sane in all of your neuroses and traumas than reading the journal scribblings of an artist whose work you respect. It’s enough to override the crippling sense of inadequacy. Like when I read Thick by Tressie McMillam Cottom this week and felt in awe from her incisive readings of pop culture moments from her perspective of a Southern black woman. Or when I pored over Real Life by Brandon Taylor, a novel with utterly moving prose not unlike Didion’s, that moved me to tears, felt extremely erotic to me in many parts, and also made me feel slightly less alone thanks to its depiction of a gay black man who craves love and comfort and to be held but also is horrified to ask for such things and when you do get them, you often recoil from them as if you never wanted them in the first place.
“I believed [my father] like to be alone just as I like to be alone, but he wanted that isolation without our love, while I never want to do without love, even when I want to be alone.” Hilton Als wrote this in the introduction to Alice Neels, Uptown, a curation of paintings and drawings artist Alice Neel made during the five decades she lived in Spanish Harlem and the Upper West Side. He is impressed by her ability to see “the world as it existed on its own terms, and [she believed] it was our duty—as citizens, as artists—to know as much about it as possible, in order to better live in it and navigate it; to exist among all the broken glass and bottle caps and boys on the street, in a kind of unsentimental wonder.” I’d like to think I am becoming better about my own comfort in this world, in our society, in my own body. I’d like to think I am becoming better at simply existing.