You'd Have to Be an Acrobat to Touch Her
140 · 2 October 97
Tanya Donelly: Lovesongs for Underdogs
I rarely sit down expressly, but generically, to "watch television". I watch movies, and soccer games, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and enough of Thursday night to remain culturally literate, but this is all deliberate, scheduled use. I turn the TV on at the beginning of the program, watch what I came to watch, and turn it off again at the end. This is not quite as virtuous as it might sound, either quantitatively (there are a lot of soccer games on, some weeks) or qualitatively (I watch some really bad movies), but I still recommend it as a discipline. The vast majority of the most soul-eroding crap on television, it seems to me, is far too undistinguished to actually plan for, and thus exists entirely at the mercy of people who are determined, at all costs, not to shut the set off. The great industry trend is away from the scheduled-event model of old-fashioned network programming, towards endless spigots of thinly-flavored stuff. I can tell, without having ever participated, that when TV executives assemble in their covens (what is the correct plural for TV executives?) to confer, they speak of "content" with the same ignorant blustering confidence, layered over frightened incomprehension, that the executives at the imploded online service where I used to work did. I watched them while they said the word, and I could almost see the image of an idling cement truck in the backs of their eyes, its shiny metal spout poised to pour the magic, homogenous sludge into whatever trough they imperiously indicated, its bloated belly revolving slowly to keep the "content" from somehow freezing up. The economics behind this transition are simple and compelling: the amount of effort it takes to build up mass anticipation for a single "very special Blossom", or a mildly thoughtful online editorial, is about the same as the amount of effort required to promote a whole 24-hour specialty channel or an endless agent-filtered news feed for the rest of eternity, and while there's an argument to be made that attentive Blossom viewers are more receptive to commercials during that planned half-hour, it's simply too exhausting to build an audience of serious duration a half an hour at a time. And too risky; if the phone rings just as the program is beginning, and it's someone who's reached the Step where they apologize to everybody they know, by the time you can extricate yourself the network half-hour has icily turned its back on you, while MTV and ESPN welcome you back with infinite tolerance.
We just got a bunch of new cable channels here in Cambridge, though, which temporarily defy planning, since TV Guide hasn't gotten around to listing them, so last Saturday I slipped my principles a $20 and sent them off to entertain themselves, and sat down under the cement-truck spigot to see what the new upper digits of my cable box had to offer. Some of these channels I'd been coveting for months: The SciFi Channel (I love science fiction, I reasoned, forgetting that television science-fiction is invariably awful), The Comedy Channel (laughing is good, I thought, forgetting that the old cable channels already supplied a constant stream of sitcom reruns and mediocre stand-up), The Cartoon Channel (not sure why I thought I'd like this one, unless it just looped through the complete run of Rocky and Bullwinkle over and over). And while The Classic Sports Channel was obviously a tape-library gamely attempting to defray its own warehousing overhead, surely The History Channel would have something edifying? (No.) So swept away was I, for an optimistic moment, that I even imagined that HBO2 and HBO3 would not just be showing Ricochet at staggered intervals. About twenty minutes of concentrated flicking was sufficient to extinguish my enthusiasm, and confirm my gloomy alternate suspicion that the cable company had simply found a way to get me to give them ten more dollars every month for the privilege of knowing that there still is not anything better to watch on a channel I don't have. To give them credit, this is a cleverly extensible strategy.
After abandoning this exercise, however, instead of just turning the set off and going back to reading The History of Luminous Motion, I decided to spend a few minutes more attempting to commit to memory the new channel-numbers of the few channels I actually use in my life. So I found the Spanish channel I watch soccer games on (which, when there is no soccer to broadcast, alternates effusive Latino melodrama with gaudy and breezily anachronistic variety shows), figured out where the cable company thought it more sensible to put channels 25 and 56 (which used to be 25 and 56; who thought that up?), and then slogged past the Tropics of Infomercial to get to MTV, which is now 28. Here my thumb, already plunging toward the + button to get to VH1, suddenly recoiled from the remote. MTV was showing a My So-Called Life rerun. This isn't that unusual, and I have the entire series on tape, so I'm usually able to resist the pull of rewatching whatever one they're recycling, but I arrived literally as the opening scene of "The Substitute" began, and that was the first episode I ever saw, so of course I had to watch a few minutes, at least. Ah yes, Vic, and his toothpicks, and his socks, and whatever it is that sings inside me when Angela, at the dinner table, imitates not only his manner of speaking, but his habit of taking casual questions seriously. Perhaps television isn't this century's most insidious evil, after all. I know the rhythms of these episodes by heart, though, and as the first commercials approached I started disentangling myself, and preparing again to shut off the TV. Just before the break, though, the picture suddenly squashed up into the top of the screen, making way for a garish yellow announcement, in mock MSCL-logo type, in the bottom half. "You're watching", it announced, "the My So-Called Life marathon!" I gulped; "The Substitute" is only episode six, and it was only midnight, and I had a morning soccer game to play the next day. I should turn off the TV. I should turn off the TV. Sleep is good. Soccer is more fun if you aren't exhausted until after the game. I should turn the TV off and go to bed.
But I couldn't. As I said, I have all nineteen episodes on tape, without commercials even, so there was no practical reason for me to stay up watching them in this form. But I couldn't turn it off. I couldn't say what turning it off would say; I couldn't turn off the MSCL marathon for the same reason that I can't sell the vinyl LPs I've replaced with CDs. Yes, I don't need them, but those are my favorite albums, and no amount of level-headed realism can circumvent the feeling of betrayal that parting with any copy of them would engender. My So-Called Life is dead, and will never come back to us, but I owe it, all the same, and a little sleeplessness is a small, small thing to ask in return for what the show has meant to me. So I watched until four, slept impatiently, played my soccer game distractedly, and rushed home in time for the last three. I firmly believe that My So-Called Life is the sole great artwork that the medium of television has so far produced. Every episode, even the frothy penultimate weekend, fills me with wonder and desperate empathy, and the best other TV is hopelessly formulaic and gutless by comparison. As the credits rolled, after the marathon-ending reprise of "The Life of Brian", the contrast between this show and the parade of SeaQuest reruns that I sat down to the previous evening struck me with a particular violence. I wish so passionately to believe in progress. I wish to believe that after My So-Called Life television cannot simply revert to its familiar mindlessness. The show has entered my soul, and though its ratings were always terrible (a fact I try not to dwell on, as it exacerbates my misanthropy dangerously), I can't accept the notion that the form could continue on without a trace of its effects.
Which is why, perhaps, I spend so much more time listening to records than I do watching television shows. Music, at least, is aware of itself. Good ideas are built upon, not forgotten or ignored. True, bad ideas also get resurrected, and many of the good ones get reused by people who don't understand the nature of the inspiration, or care, but outside of a handful of Mariahs and U2s, the stakes are orders of magnitude lower than prime-time TV, so there is space for good music to follow its own course. (I once believed that the cable-TV channel explosion would allow this to happen in TV, too, but The Larry Sanders Show and flashes of charm in Buffy notwithstanding, that appears to have been a bad guess.) And so, every once in a while, amidst the general churn of neo/retro circularity, I catch a glimpse of what seems to me to be a glimmer of genuine progress, as if this year there is a little more art to music than there was last.
My latest occasion for this hopeful suspicion is "Pretty Deep", the surging advance single and opening track of ex-Throwing Muses, -Breeders and -Belly guitarist Tanya Donelly's first solo album, Lovesongs for Underdogs. Conflating the path of my personal preferences with "progress" is narcissistic, but I have liked each step on Donelly's career path better than the last. Throwing Muses seemed to me like a band forever cowering behind the fear that it would slip and write an accessible pop song. The times they did, like the glorious "Dizzy" and the snapping "Counting Backwards", thrilled me, but the rest of the time their songs felt like they were defined more by what they weren't than what they were. I could never sense the internal logic of the chord changes, and so wished they'd just quit stalling and hit the one the tune demanded. The Breeders, though possessed of some of the same instincts, had Kim Deal's careening energy to get them through the rough spots on sheer inertia, but while this made a band I preferred, Deal's electric presence left very little room for Donelly's. Belly, then, were the first band in which Tanya's personality was plainly manifest. Their first album, Star, fittingly, struck me as a transition, half the intoxicating reel of off-center pop songs like "Feed the Tree" and "Slow Dog", but half, still, a left-over Throwing Muses obligation to take unexpected turns for the sake of unexpectedness. King, the second Belly album, wasn't very well received, apparently, by anybody but me, but I thought it was amazing. Throwing Muses wrote like architects, and while it's certainly possible to construct timeless music through calculation and diagramming, it's very hard to make good rock music that way. The souls of rock are instinct and empathy, not analysis and counterbalance. King, to me, was powerful, vibrant and assured in a way that schematics could never capture. This is only half, though, of why I consider it one of the decade's truly great rock albums. The other half is that on it Tanya manages to construct a version of rock that substitutes aching emotional vulnerability and romantic rapture for the form's usual blustering machismo. It is obvious, and therefore almost certainly wrong, to say that hers is the feminine version of rock, but while I'm loath to cede vulnerability and rapture entirely to women, I think there is something to this. For the longest time it seemed like Chrissie Hynde was the paradigmatic woman-in-rock, but to me the Pretenders music was never really that different from that of their male peers. Chrissie opened doors for women, but the doors led, initially, to the same rooms the men congregated in. Probably this had to be the first step. A lot of records have been made since "Brass in Pocket", though, in a lot of different emotional modes than "Satisfaction". To vastly oversimplify, King seemed to me like one of the first post-Tori Amos rock albums, with the lesson of Tori's searing confessional intensity used to undermine rock's traditional defensive posturing and build a new foundation on a broader, more deeply rooted base.
But King was also a band album (like Tori's and Kate Bush's and Sarah McLachlan's were not), and the band broke up. If this had happened after Star, I'm not sure Tanya would have been ready. The difference between freedom and abandonment can be subtle, and while I didn't think Tanya seemed all that dependent on her bandmates on Star, I thought she was still leaning on her past, and the band helped disguise that. King, in becoming an ensemble record, finally crowded the ghosts out, so that when the band dissolved it was real people Tanya had to learn to get along without, not invisible ones, and tangible absences are always easier to account for. As central as the band's presence was to King, quartets tend to write quartetish songs, and it should be easy for one person to think of how a song could be different, at least, without three other minds pulling it in their own directions. Unsurprisingly, then, Lovesongs for Underdogs (the title, I like to think, a nod to the Cavedogs' Joyrides for Shut-Ins) is much more varied than either Belly album. The firm, surging "The Bright Light" has jagged guitar and a Theremin-like backing vocal. "Landspeed Song" has manic shuffling drums and some keening pitch-bent guitar from Human Sexual Response/Zulus/Concussion Ensemble mastermind Rich Gilbert. The slow, distracted "Mysteries of the Unexplained" is like a becalmed Sundays song. The bleak "Lantern" plays sinister muttering and airy girl-group vocal harmonies against droning buzz-saw guitar and squawking accordion. The plaintive, elegant "Acrobat", with purring strings and bassist Dean Fisher on acoustic guitar, has some eerie "coo coo" vocal parts that remind me vividly of Laurie Anderson. "Breathe Around You" is a grim, lurching blues stomp that might be sultry if it weren't so noisy. "Bum", from the Sliding & Diving EP, earlier this year, sounds like a Lush demo. "Clipped"'s rumbling verses are the most Throwing Muses-like thing here, but the choruses segue into a soaring waltz. "Goat Girl" sounds like Jewel experimenting with a Simon and Garfunkel tune. "Manna" sounds like Sinéad doing Rush's "Closer to the Heart" with a Celtic dirge interpolated. And "Swoon", the finale, also from Sliding & Diving, sounds even more like an excerpt from Sinéad's first album, but with strings in place of her sawing guitar.
Tanya's personal progress, however, and impressive stylistic range, aren't why "Pretty Deep" makes me feel the way it does. There are parts of it that could be nobody else, but I'm confident that given a vocoder and a spare afternoon I could eliminate all identifiable traces of her and still love the song as much. It is on repeat in my mind, rather, because I can think of no other song that reconciles as many stray threads of contemporary rock music as neatly as this. Structurally, the song follows Nirvana's loud/soft/loud blueprint, with waves of roaring guitars and crashing drums alternating with tense, quiet spells. Dave Grohl no more invented the technique of whacking the snare with both sticks, just a tiny bit out of sync, than Nirvana invented the idea of seesaw dynamics, but "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is the definitive example of both things, to me, and "Pretty Deep" uses them reverently, like a legacy. Tanya's songs are crisper and clearer than Kurt's, so "Pretty Deep" needs only two of the cannon-shot snares, where "Smells Like Teen Spirit" had four, and gets away without the stuttering kick drums that Grohl used in between, but allusion to Nirvana's precedent is, to me, a large part of why Tanya can achieve a similar effect more simply. Her and Gilbert's resonant, ringing guitars and thick overdrive have more in common with the Connells' than with Kurt's scratchy playing and abrasive distortion, but the echoes are unmistakable.
One of this era's other Grand Themes, I think historians will say, is the preeminence of vocal nuance and idiosyncrasy. Kate, Tori, Sinéad, Polly Harvey and Björk have all taken vocal technique in unpredictable directions, and while Tanya is nowhere as dramatic as any of those, she is aware of the expanded potential their work has created, and her voice slides from hushed flutter to bird-call flourishes to a passionate rock howl. The flip side of the wild expressiveness of voices is that instrumental solos now perform almost an inverted role. When the lead guitar takes its turn here (right between a chorus and a reprise, where guitars have soloed since time began), it feels like an extension of the words, to me, not a superfluous aside. Its part is lyrical, not virtuosic, and I take it as an admission that words alone cannot capture the whole feeling. The old guitar gods soloed flamboyantly, to make their songs bigger than life; the new ones solo gracefully, and humbly, to admit that life is much bigger than anything they can say.
Another modern development, easily overlooked as it's become so ingrained in mainstream music, is that drum machines and click tracks have affected rhythm parts deeply. Before robots, the drummer's primary responsibility was to keep time, and the catalog of basic kick-snare patterns was mostly optimized for clear periodicity. Click tracks introduced the possibility of constructing a song around a beat that the listener would not actually hear, explicitly, and drum machines facilitated an array of mathematical, but unintuitive, patterns. These innovations have come to have lives of their own, quite apart from the technology involved, to the point where even many songs with live drummers have drum parts that owe a debt to machines. Ash Sood's oblique, circling patterns on Sarah McLachlan's albums are perhaps the most prominent and persistent use of percussion to imply rhythms. The spare, ticking drum parts on the verses of "Pretty Deep" are not nearly as involved, but they do combine a muted metronomic restraint with off-beat anticipation, for a similar effect.
While all this has been happening, literature has also been evolving, and if the spirit and urgency of music has found its way into literature, then at least a little of post-modern literature's misdirection, ambiguity and terse evocation has leaked back into music. "I wish I carried a camera; / I'd have proof that you're never where you say", Tanya sings, and I can't tell if she's trying to prove it to him, or to herself. "Remember when we all went out to Fire Island? / You thought you saw a body on the beach. / When we got close it was just a tire, / And you were disappointed I could see, / So I pretended." What kind of person is disappointed not to find a body? What kind of person is involved with someone who is disappointed not to find a body? Is she pretending the tire is a body, or is she trying to fill the role of the missing body herself? It's not clear whether the song means "pretty deep" as an expression of devotion or helplessness, and perhaps the narrator herself isn't sure.
I like "Pretty Deep" best, though, because of the way its two entwined melodies bind the other impulses together. As the guitars trace a delicate, spinning figure in the upper octaves, the bass steps slowly through a mournful song of its own; try as I might, I can't actually follow both these parts at once. I can't sing chords, obviously, but even if I try to imagine the notes, rather than hum them, the two parts move at such different paces, and with such different demeanors, that doing one justice precludes grasping the other. I can only appreciate them both by letting go and listening to the interplay as a whole, but this is so overwhelming that I instantly want to deconstruct the song to find out how the parts work, and then I've lost it again. This is precisely the problem I have with My So-Called Life, and why it affects me so intensely: the characters are all so vividly and intricately rendered that every interaction has as many layers as participants, often more. There are no simple foils; Sharon's self-consciousness lurks under every impervious warder's glare, Rayanne and Ricky's lonelinesses spill out around their careful images, Brian's over-thinking gear-mismatches are more obvious the more natural he tries to act. The parents have their own lives, the teachers; even Jordan, after seeming like a mirage for several episodes, turns out to be a real person. The simplest sunny hallway encounter with Delia Fisher or pointless argument with Hallie Lowenthal is almost unbearably painful and exquisite to me, and I play it back for hours, each time tracing another tread of meaning through it, but the sense is so much more than any one of them. I can't even decide whether I'm in love with Angela or I am Angela. "Pretty Deep", in its way, is the same question. Each repetition leaves me more convinced that the question matters, but no closer to knowing what my answer is. But perhaps this is right; the importance of the question need not correspond to its answerability. Perhaps the secret is that if you ask the questions correctly, you don't have to answer them at all.