Trials + Tribulations

2009: A Xiu Xiudyssey
May 22, 2009, 12:56 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

jamiexiuI just read this article of Puritan Blister over on Pitchfork, and I like it a lot. The author talks about his love for Xiu Xiu and what it means. If you’re a “schwee”, read on.

The announcement of Caralee McElroy’s leaving Xiu Xiu has triggered reflection among superfans. This column could well be spent overwriting “objective” reasons why Xiu Xiu is my favorite band, but I dove off the completist, they-can-do-no-wrong cliff too long ago. I could be flip and say that they’re my jam because they have the best t-shirts. I could go long and spew paragraphs about how deliberately (and admittedly) Jamie Stewart “utilizes” global/avant-garde modes/arrangements in an attempt to drape/overcome the ho-hum pedestrian aspects of whiteboy guitar-based music. I could play the mysterious-card and say that I heart Xiu Xiu because of how much of their work I am yet to understand.

I could also offer that Xiu Xiu is the best of the late glut of baldly-obsessed-with-Joy-Division acts, of which I tend to tolerate even the least creative (She Wants Febreeze, etc). Stewart’s solo-tour shows have been closing with an awesomely stylophoned and whistle-looped “Ceremony”, and his merch even dares to include a shirt reading LOVE, LOVE WILL TEAR US APART. What did you do, dear reader, to mark Curtis’ death May 18, listen to the The Idiot, watch Stroszek, shepherd into existence some of the greatest music of the last century, or abandon your mate and child?

Xiu Xiu’s suicide-romance can get “too real,” though. I was wearing the group’s “For Life” t-shirt, the one featuring the limp fist and slit wrist, during office-hours at my day job when a student entered to explain that she’d tried to kill herself and had been in a hospital. The bandages covering her arms were the only violation of her standard all-black wardrobe. (See, music critics, we act like all this shit is just breezy aesthetics, but: similar to how heaps of hood kids are actually being hypercapitalist thug-bastards along to the iciest hip-hop, a segment of the goth population is striving to embody the dorky bleakness of their record collections.) Anyway, she noticed the shirt and stopped me from apologizing. “No,” she laughed, “it’s appropriate.” What I’m trying to illustrate is that Xiu Xiu’s whole climate of relentless provocation offers certain folks a kind of, well, permission to acknowledge darknesses that they’ve been told to repress ever since they first doodled stormclouds instead of sunshines way back in kindergarten, and it can be strangely comforting/freeing.

I understand what is off-putting to some about Xiu Xiu, and have enjoyed (and even home-recorded) spoofs of Stewart’s singular delivery and the “difficulty” of the band’s song structures. But I love how indulgent, how adolescent, how shrill-on-purpose, how bilious-then-soft, how just fugging herniated their stuff is. When I was a slightly stupider person, I once asked Chris Ott, former Pfork staffer and author of a book on Joy Division, why so many Xiu Xiu songs contained those fussy interruptions and dissonant blasts. He answered curtly, “Because they’re about child rape.” Lest the subject matter become too sonically palatable, Stewart handicaps his hooks with art-pop gristle.

Which is probably why I burped, when an acquaintance recently asked me why I like Xiu Xiu so much, “because of the abuse.”

Maybe my experiences are poorly representative of the human spectrum, but I’ve known only two people who weren’t either raped or molested (by either relatives, children of abusers, partners, friends, or strangers). A counselor that I saw explained that not everyone ends up feeling broken or defined by it. He even confessed that there was no clear way to grid one’s susceptibility to being shattered. Some people, he told me, never get over a sense that, say, their rectums were wrongly touched, while others may laugh, think “eww, now their fingers smell like ass!” and get on with life.

Lots of us, though, even if we were “only” exposed to emotional, physical, and psychological abuse, or the “mere” threat of sexual abuse, remain retarded by it. We, the abused, end up thinking we might not deserve good things. We imagine antisocial vigilante fates for intergenerational pervs at the gym, and yet we maintain villain-sympathy with regard to both reality and pop culture; our therapists claim that it’s out of a sick hope that monsters will change, or are “secretly good.” We treasure the movie Affliction and the TV series “Twin Peaks” (even finding its outsourcing/upgrading of the father’s despicable behavior to an “evil spirit” sort of metaphysically accurate). Our favorite comedy skits are the “Mr. Show” one about greatness resulting from abuse (Lincoln, Newton, and Einstein saying “my father touched my butthole”), the “Upright Citizens Brigade” one during which a child can say only either “shut up” or “hit me,” and the (very Xiu Xiu-sounding) “Tim & Eric Awesome Show Great Job” songs involving the neglected Casey & His Brother, who are hilariously morbid about their guardians’ absentia. (Jamie Stewart’s own dark sense of humor is too often overlooked in appraisals of his art.)

We, the abused, are parent-haunted to the point of never becoming parents. We stay trauma-bonded to folks who mistreat us while dismissing the well-adjusted and kind. We worry about the potential in our blood for perpetuating the cycle of wrongness, in a way that would seem unscientific if data didn’t bear it out. We wonder about the obvious hole in that complacent ol’ golden rule, to do unto others as you would have to them do unto you: But… what if I’m so messed up that I WANT to be mistreated? Is that a license to lash out?

A girl who had been gang-assaulted was visiting my house once when some well-meaning person stuck a flyer for Rape Awareness Month on my door. I stepped outside to read it, and my words-and-lettersy self just considered the unfortunate acronym, “RAM.”

The girl’s response was even more defeated: “Hmph,” she said. “People aren’t going to stop raping people.”

I obviously overbelieve that one’s priorities/hobbyhorses result from one’s psychology/biography. For example: certain politicians/preachers preoccupied with bashing homosexuality due to their own acculturated self-loathing. “Activists,” according to my thinking, must be no different. Yup, I’ve spent enough time in South Carolina’s Center for the Development of Non-Healing Wounds to insist that even a charitable nature must spring from some fundamental breach. Surely activists have got to be trying to cope with or compensate for something; no one is that organically together or beneficent, right? With what abyss, what blackness, are they trying to deal by supplying aid to the needy, or the infirm? What was the dark secret of my friend’s wife who could cradle her child, flanked by portraits of Jesus, while describing to me how she watched a parasite exit a comatose Vietnam veteran’s penis earlier that day?

But wait, she was one of the silent ones. Quiet, non-identifying-as-such activists, I’m cool with. Loud, self-labeling “activists,” eff off. Go build little altars to your nobility and award yourself Daytime Emmys made of 14-karat plight. Srsly, learn to be Johnny Anonymous-seed. Linear, overt activism that calls attention to itself is as shitty as cosmetic beauty that does the same. And “political” punk-folk farted out for a like-minded protest-horny audience is just as redundant as hymns about being at church or club anthems about clubbing. (We’ll be DIY when we make our own cigarettes, fuel, and plastic.) The consistently poverty-stricken Edgar Allan Poe dropped a great term for such “humble” imps: “self-bepuffed.” Bragging about how you’re going to cultishly “liberate” a particular community is as bizarre and arrogant as hoarding stuffed animals, which, as the cultural critic Daniel Harris has pointed out in his book Cute, Quaint, Hungry, & Romantic, is an act of sadism: surrounding yourself with helpless lessers in need of your propping. (Uh-oh, Jamie Stewart has been bragging about the vastness of his own plush harem.)

Yeah, okay, Xiu Xiu traffic in the properly political. Too often their songs, (“Support Our Troops, Oh!”, “Guantanamo Canto”), videos (“Muppet Face”) or t-shirts (the Iraq map one, the GWBush “You’re Already Dead” one) served as my sole reminders that I was funding shady wars in which people I knew had died or been scatterbrained. The band’s website voices support for all the right causes. And that lyric, “smells like Fallujah,” might be the most charged reappropriation of Kurt Cobain’s legendary dictum yet. Plus, I have never seen an image more Xiu-ronic than these waist-high soldier-shaped flag holders for sale at an Old Country Store. I mean, likenesses of troops, whom no one wants to see suffer or reduced to lame symbolism, pre-punctured with huge dildo or tiki-torch size chasms through them–

Xiu Xiu immediately assists lots of listeners, though, by addressing sexual abuse, in pop culture, in an artful way. That may sound insipid, but they do many people a world of good, just by making decent songs about a common form of suffering. Eminem’s forthcoming “Insane” may change things, but what else would go on a sexual-abuse-happens playlist, Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun”? That’s the simplistic musical equivalent of the episode of “CSI Miami” during which a doggone pedophile frustrates David Caruso so much, and so stylishly, that he feels compelled go wade and squat in the ocean while still sporting his designer suit.

Another sense in which Stewart is a hero for the mangled majority is that, apparently, he’s found a way to make dysfunction serve him. He hasn’t fled success. His fixations evidently catalyze his productivity. His output suggests that the problem isn’t the pain, but finding a place to put it.

Besides, the ills that traditional activism opposes (war, inequality, oppression, et al.) are rooted in the same force with which Xiu Xiu struggle to negotiate: bullying lust.

Another balm: the world of Xiu Xiu is awash in humanized, non-trad (i.e., non leather/dungeon) S&M imagery. Stewart probably exposes some folks, for the first time, to the therapeutic possibilities of safely eroticizing their fears and traumas. Authors such as Carol J. Adams (of The Pornography of Meat fame) might insist that it’s wrongish, but many practitioners disagree. I had a chance to talk with her recently at a reception after her slide show, and I admitted that I either had such a broken psyche or was so awash in domination-centric propaganda that I couldn’t grasp how her idea of completely non-objectifying and egalitarian sexuality would even work. Xiu Xiu’s songs about boundary-testing mutual adult relationships might encourage one’s conviction that permissive violence, or the performance of inequality, are indeed “okay” to find sexy. How could I detox from that, I asked Adams.

Without necessarily being ungracious, she looked at me as if part of me was dead. While I took a mouthful from my plate of vegan wieners, she wrote her prescription on a napkin. A book recommendation! Its title: The End of Masculinity.

Due to a heightened allergic reaction to pollen, itself due to a deviated septum, itself due to a shameful suckerpunch, the eustachian tube of my right ear had collapsed. So the docs had to administer a very Eno/ambient audiology test, puncture my eardrum with acid, and then vacuum out whatever horror was behind it. The lancer said, “you’re going to feel tremendous agony, and then you’re going to hear the loudest sound you’ve ever heard.” These are the extry-masochistic conditions under which I experienced Jamie Stewart and his fabulous bird whistles.

It was the second-best Xiu set I’ve beheld, and I’m an old hand at these shindigs. The two new tunes from Dear God, I Hate Myself sound plenty thanatoptic, and seemed to foster strong emotional responses from showgoers. Stewart didn’t do much more than honor his songs, which is to say that he avoids coming across as ministerial, and yet, there they/we were: sobby congregants.

I can’t fully fathom groupiedom; I mean, girls who treat their vaginas like these David Cronenberg-y iPod docking stations for the boners of local/regional/national/international musicians? But my healthy crush on ol’ Stewart makes me cling to my straightness harder than did females I fancied because they resembled Harmony Korine and Mos Def. I didn’t want to have some homoerotic, sign-my-seven-inch exchange with him, and I didn’t want to be one of those lingering post-show orbitards, chatting up indie stars about effects pedals and hair gel.

Yet: there I stood.

Under the heading “Debate on Sexual Abuse” on Xiu Xiu’s blog, Stewart had posted the following: “i was given a note at a recent solo show decrying me for not engaging people in a discussion about sexual abuse during shows or warning people that there would be songs about sexual abuse during xiu xiu shows. that it could be traumatic for people who had dealt with this issue.

the note…was written in terms of “us” which i took to mean people who had suffered from abuse. if i read it correctly, it implied that i did not have the right to talk about it; that i am not part of this “us.” although i would love not to be, i am.

the person who gave me the note asked me, before i could read it, if i wanted talk to him about this as yet unread note. which i said i would of course but then i could not find him upon then reading it…

i have no idea how to feel about this. part of me wants to say fuck you fucking arrogant wounded dumb shit, part of me wonders if i have not been clear about the purpose of being blunt about awful things, part of me thinks for sure i do not feel responsible for leading a discussion group during a show, part of me wants to do anything i can to be the right person for people who have gone through this but how? what do you think?”

He posted 16 responses, ranging from the thoughtful to the thoughtless, and from the brief to the voluminous, presumably providing a cross-section of what people seek/get from his music. For my part, I approached him, and was totally planning, I promise, to just nerdily thank him for some great albums.

What came out was, “I didn’t defend my sister against my dad.”

Stewart made an instantaneous eye-wipe gesture that I’ve never seen anyone else exhibit. Trembly but hoping to monitor my own floodgates, I think I blubbered unprofoundly for just a sec about so much of the world not being fair to kids, and about how Stewart’s music was activism even when– maybe especially when– it wasn’t staring down war machines. He put his arms around me and, yo, we hugged like grown men, hugging.

I bought a Xiu Xiu comb.

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