There comes a time when, as a graduate student, you get really tired of trying to answer the question “What is your thesis topic?” Or more specifically, one becomes extremely tired of the response that you get. In order of the most innocent and least annoying to the most culpable and homicide inducing, here are the responses one tends to get after they’ve struggled to formulate their project.
1) Oh, cool. (followed by an awkward silence and a lack of eye-contact)
2) Oh, cool. I read a book about that last summer that really seemed to close the book on that one.
3) Hmm. That is an interesting choice. I wouldn’t have imagined that was still an open question.
4) Okay, that sounds interesting, but the real question you ought to be asking is….
5) You do realize that there is no one who would be willing to help you with that right?
6) You want to work on THAT for the next X number of months?
I’ve received all these answers in the past few weeks and I’m beginning to find a certain inequity between the interlocutor’s response and my response to their response. For example:
interlocutor: Oh, I read a book on that last summer that really convinced me that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder and any action of art is really an expression of self-loathing.
Me: Really, so you read Twilight over the summer. I agree with you, Stephanie Meyer does seem to hate herself and by extension all other women in the world. Why else would she create a situation in which whenever a woman bemoans the arrogance, aggression, or misogyny of any particular person with a penis, said penis-bearer can argue that the millions and millions of women from seven to seventy who adore the soulless, pandering, bad-boy-worshiping Twilight Saga prove that women really are attracted to neanderthals with poor personal grooming and serious entitlement issues.
I freely admit that these lapses in my personal decorum are both in undeniably poor taste and are occurring at decreasing intervals so the purpose of this post is to–once and for all–to answer the most significant–and bothersome–of my interlocutor’s responses: “You want to work on THAT for the next six months?” So without further introduction–and watch the video if you haven’t already–here is the rational for my proposed thesis.
“Jezebel” the video you just watched was the second single from the second full-time album completed by Alan Wilder’s solo project Recoil. Wilder arrived late as keyboard player for Depeche Mode having answered an ad in Melody Maker magazine in 1982 just in time to contribute to much of their seminal work. Recoil began as an outlet for his experimental, less pop-oriented compositions until in 1992, but his departure from the group transformed the project from a small side venture into Wilder’s primary musical enterprise. Recoil’s second post DM album, Liquid (2000), saw Wilder teaming with New York spoken-word performers Nicole Blackman (alumnus of Anton Fier’s Golden Palomino’s and Samantha Coerbell. The album debuted to glowing praise from the worldwide music press and Wilder was awarded a Grand Prix du Disque from the Académie Charles Cros in 2000.
Unlike the majority of tracks on Liquid, the aforementioned track is almost entirely composed of a sample from Joshua fit the Battle originally recorded by Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet and release in 1949. As even the most tin-eared critic can readily identify, Wilder has done little more with the original track than pitch shift and slow the sample and place it above a moody atmospheric bass line and reverb laden drum track. Certainly there is artistry in Wilder’s appropriation but the original recording is more than easily picked out from his embellishments.
Subversion of Intention
So, why the music history lesson about a band you’ve never heard of and aren’t likely to hear again? Well, it seems to me that “Jezebel” stands as an excellent case study in the subversion of intention that often accompanies appropriative art. Listening to the original recording from Joshua Fit the Battle (below) one senses that while the lyrics are a little jarring to post-Modern, post-Christian, Post-Toasties ears, the intention of the track is more foot-tapping than Bible-thumping. Certainly the lyrics are PG-13 (“her flesh was too filthy for the dogs to eat”) they aren’t meant to incite shivers and apprehension. One could say that the primary intention behind the original track’s version is entertainment with a side of morality–like an Aesop’s Fable for the ear.
In contrast, “Jezebel” in Wilder’s hands is scary. It evokes manic street preachers and placards with “The End is Near” written in block capitals. The effect is only enhanced when one watches the official music video with its imagery of maggots squirming and a dog licking at a pool of unidentifiable liquid. Clearly Wilder intends his audience to be unsettled. “Liquid” receives regular play in my day-to-day commute and I can assure that both Jezebel and all the other tracks on that album are nothing like harmless little “Just So” stories. So what is going on here? How can philosophy make sense of the happy-clappy track that made us dance in our chairs lifted–in its entirety–but suddenly making us cringe instead of boogey. If intentionality is the condition of reference what happened to the intentionality of the first instance after its referent seems so diametrically opposed? Do the surviving members of the Golden Gate Quartet have reason to say that Liquid’s Jezebel isn’t their Jezebel even while their performances remain largely unmolested? Is there something ethically wrong going on here?
This is the sort of thing that get me excited and these are the sorts of questions that I find fascinating. As a recovering (professional) artist and (semi professional) musician I wonder about these issues endlessly and would be happy to do so for a large portion of my life. So, yes, I’d like to work on it for the next six months.[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JCSRhZSi7Nw%5D