Thursday, 27 October 2011

Polish Socially Engaged Arts

Full version of an article originally published in the Guardian CiF April 17th, 2011.

Polish artists are interesting because of their relation to history

After more than 20 years of introducing a brutal, neoliberal economy into a decaying late communist reality, and creating a capitalist market, Poland now also has a much-desired “art market". A few years ago, when there was something of a boom in Polish art, an attempt was made to label it Young Polish Art, after the British equivalent. This trend has now begun to fade, especially since numerous events during the long Polska! year promoting Polish culture in the UK failed to attract much publicity. It’s true that Miroslaw Balka got a prestigious Turbine Hall commission in 2009/10, which is as close as you can get to canonization in the modern art world, but I don’t think recognition of Polish art worldwide changed much.

What has shifted is the political impact of Polish critical art at home. Polish art, rather than being simply an entertainment for the rich, is engaging with politics on the levels many of the Western artists can only dream of. It’s been seriously clashing with politics, many times finishing in court. it was not sheer epather le bourgeois - the visual arts taken the task of challenging the society on a much harsher, deeper level than film or literature.

This is the legacy of the 1990s, when makers of so-called “critical art" were reacting to the years of censorship, superficiality and lack of democracy, revealing that not much has changed in the new democratic reality. We enjoyed on a smaller scale a version of the Viennese Actionist movement. Artists such as Katarzyna Kozyra, Artur Zmijewski, Zbigniew Libera, Robert Rumas and Grzegorz Klaman were excavating Polish traumas, touching upon themes such as Polish religiosity, too-soon forgotten memories of the Holocaust, intolerance and exclusions (of homosexuals, women, disabled), various taboos, like non-normative sexuality, the body and its visceral aspects or ageing, and the way individuals are controlled in a free, but actually extremely oppressive, society. Much more rarely the inequalities wrought by the transformation from communism to capitalism.

They were playing upon the central theme of the individual versus the system, exposing the fact that the choice between one oppressive system and another is not really a choice, at a moment when the majority of society regarded liberalism as the only option and the brutal transformation from communism a necessary evil. By self-exposure (such as Kozyra, who posed as Manet’s Olimpia while suffering from cancer) or assuming the role of a perpetrator (Żmijewski asking a former concentration camp prisoner to “renew" the tattooed number on his arm), critical artists were working through and acting out numerous traumas, frequently becoming the object of harsh, politically motivated censorship and hostile social ostracism by right-wing politicians. Gallery closures were common, as was the removal or even destruction of work. The most famous case of censorship was the 8 years-long trial of Dorota Nieznalska, concerning her 2001 work Passion, where she put male genitals photo onto a cross. She was finally cleared of the charges, but this process remains a reminder of the free speech abuse in Poland.

A couple of years into the new decade of the noughties, however, some of the most successful critical artists, such as Żmijewski, started to criticize this kind of art for being self-indulgent and for its lack of visible political success. Critical art had not disrupted the system, it was claimed. Worse, it had become a playful, attractive gallery object, all the more pathetic given its initial ambitions. In 2005, Żmijewski became an art editor of Krytyka Polityczna, a newly emerged but increasingly popular political club and magazine where he published his manifesto, Applied Social Arts, which prompted fervent debate about the political impact of Polish critical art.

Interestingly enough, at the same time Żmijewski was accusing his peers of political indifference and lack of taking serious risks, he, Althamer and Kozyra were becoming renowned names, appearing frequently in international art magazines. And exactly when a new generation of artists born in 70s and 80s entered the scene and were cutting off from the “critical” generation, they, to whom Bałka also belongs by age, had started to get the official nod: there were huge retrospectives for Libera and Kozyra as well as big group shows in the key Polish art institutions. Apparently, they no longer threatened the establishment, they wouldn’t shake Poland. Oh really? In this one sense Żmijewski was wrong: critical art was capable of political agency, because it provoked national debates that redefined the status quo.

The real question with which Polish artists are now struggling is mapping the realm in which art can still mean and effect something. Attracting gallery visitors was never their aim. It was later said that critical art was only really interested in the big existential questions, ignoring the social reality of the poor and excluded. Żmijewski responded to this by making a number of socially engaged works: he filmed dozens of demos, rallies and protests for his ongoing series Democracies; in his Work series he filmed people doing particularly unattractive, numbing jobs: a cashier in a hypermarket or a street cleaner. Recently he made a film about the mourning of the Smolensk air disaster, Catastrophy, which studied the behaviour of the crowd that stood in front of the Presidential Palace brandishing a giant cross, raising all kinds of social tensions. Żmijewski himself chosen to provocatively side with the religious crowd, presenting them in a positive light. That’s what makes his work ambivalent because the same square saw also the only moment when a counter crowd manifested itself, yearning for a secular country and calling for releasing the city space from the church’s domination, but they are not his favorites.

Żmijewski’s aim is always to provoke the viewer to his own political choices, he’s not saying that anti-church is necessarily enlightened and pro-church backwards and oppressive. Maybe he wants to actually redefine the senses in which we become a community, what constitutes us as such and what did it actually mean to be a Pole during those difficult days of the mourning, that now will come back, as we have the 1st anniversary. But I sympathize more with actions of a very important public space artist Joanna Rajkowska, whose actions prompted debates about public spaces in Poland again. Some of them formerly belonged to one ideology, and later were obliterated, such as the square in the former Warsaw ghetto, where the contemporary Israeli trips come to the Synagogue, and a church vis-à-vis was selling anti-semitic brochures. In this toxic area Rajkowska built an artificial pond, so called Oxygenator, that was mainly used by the formerly neglected pensioners living nearby, who were suddenly enjoying this space, and what a different view for the Israeli teenagers on their compulsory Holocaust trips, that are told they are coming to the land of death. Despite the pond’s popularity, city authorities objected to prolong its few months existence, but it has changed this space forever.

Polish artists are looking for new models of engagement, since the sense of community we had earlier was destroyed, and the only new community we’re offered is manipulated by the Catholic church or by a sense of victimhood. In neoliberal Poland, caught between the cynicism of the right wing populists and the cynicism of the liberals, between lack of self confidence and an inferiority complex, this sense of community is what we must restore.

more links

project of a group of post-critical artists after the Kaczynski brothers (Law & Justice, PiS, right wing & nationalistic, though combining it with more social policies)

Katarzyna Kozyra in Art in America

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Sound in the Early Soviet Cinema

[unedited version of an article appeared in The Wire in #329 July 2011 issue]

KINO: Russian Film Pioneers 1909–57
BFI, London, UK

For everyone not acquainted with the early works of Soviet cinema seeing the early, experimental pieces of the 1920s must be a striking experience. It is a succession of groundbreaking masterpieces that transformed the 10th muse. How was that possible in the basically state controlled cinematography, nearly uniquely devoted to propaganda of new Soviet order, with no nods towards mass culture, to maintain its initial innovation and experiment, while remaining also entertaining, joyous watch? The Russian Film Pioneers section of the British Film Institute's KINO season, running until 30 June tries to capture this phenomenon, with all its tensions, eruptions of brilliance and ideas. One of them was the introduction of the sound at the end of 1920s and the transition from the silent – where so much had to be suggested by editing, acting and expression of the visual material to the explosive opportunities of sound. Introduction of the sound techniques left many of the most forerunning artists, including Eisenstein, initially skeptical. The first, who adopted the sound among the avant-garde luminaries, was the one who most vivaciously was denying himself an artist: the pioneer of camerawork, documentary and heartbreakingly beautiful propaganda, Dziga Vertov or the authors of Eccentric Theatre manifesto (1922), Kozintsev/Trauberg’s directorial tandem in their various Shostakovich collaborations. Shostakovich, still in early 20s, after completing his great Gogol-inspired operettas, becomes filmscore author, only to cause a massive scandal: in The New Babylon (1929), bold, astonishing rendering of Paris Commune days by the duo of directors, he masterfully captures the psychological and political nuances of any scene, juxtaposing Offenbach and Tchaikovsky’s grandiose operatic sound with more mundane sound of cancan, and above all things, importing the new, wildly modern sounds of jazz - in a truly postmodern, yet invigoratingly original manner.

No wonder that his satirical approach met instant opposition from the censorship. One can compare watching (and listening!) experience of Vertov’s Enthusiasm to eg. Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, but only on the base of oppositions. Whereas Riefenstahl insists on her artistry and sublimity and what she gains is kitsch and rather dull apotheosis of Nazism, Vertov’s apotheosis of shock-workers in Donbass during the realisation of 5 Year Plan (and Symphony of Donbass was the film’s alternative title) remains as striking a masterpiece as it was on the day it was made, pushing the art of sound galaxies ahead. Vertov amassed the scenes of dismantling the old order (iconoclastic looting of the monasteries) with the New: striking images of 'Udarniki' in Ukraine, undergoing mechanization of labour. The New is also expressed by power of the Radio – here scenes of a radio transmission are interwoven with the images of glory of Soviet achievements. The soundtrack, recorded by Vertov himself in situ and then synchronized, was a depiction of mechanization itself, being an aural attack consisting of industrial sounds of steelworks and furnaces working at full temperature and speed, put together with compositions by Shostakovich and Timofeev – here epitomizing the New Economic Policy, that rhythmic sledge hammering of steelworks were to obliterate. The use of sound by Vertov was contrapunctual, or, risking a cliché – dialectical in its construction. The emphasis was on work, how things are made, how the film itself is being made. Sound was supposed to be as tough and heavy as the work itself. The workers liked the final result, because it was showing the work as it really was: shockingly hard, the authorities not so much – the attention to human labour to build communism was not in the political climate of the late 20s.

Another fascinating use of sound happened during the festival screening of Pudovkin’s Storm over Asia (1928), a tremendous first attempt on an alternative western, or rather an “Eastern”, with the congenial soundtrack of Yat-Kha, a contemporary traditional Tuvan band. The musicians sadly couldn’t play it live, stopped by the lack of visas, so soundtrack was played from a dvd. Film is striking in combining the breathtaking visuals from the Republic of Mongolia, anti-colonial and anti-capitalist message and a revolutionary agitation. Tuvan musicians approached it with a similar playful eclectism, combining traditional drones and throat singing with nods to Western pop-culture, guitars and traditional rock, ironically quoting even The House of the Rising Sun, to a successful comic effect.

Cinema was a crucial, highly theorized art for the Constructivist avant-garde. Their writings remind us how popular metaphor of abstraction musical composition was. “There’s nothing else in musical composition, than relation of pitches to one another” wrote literature theorist Victor Shklovsky. The play of a disciplined form and arbitrariness happens in the early Soviet films in its fascination with the rhythm, which equated the modernity, the reality of speed, of mechanized life. Rhythmization was also preventing an easy fulfillment of the mimetic powers of cinema, a strange Verfremdungeffekt. Soviet filmmaker wanted to melt various features of an artwork as a Gesamtkunstwerk. In their films Vertov dreamed of becoming a seeing machine, while Pudovkin presented human brain as a machine.

In the end, sound contributed to all that, but, just as its appearing intersected with the consolidation of a Stalinist power, it couldn’t fulfill its revolutionary promises. Still, even in Stalinist era musicals, such as Alexandrov’s Happy Folks, Circus, Volga, Volga were not just simply russified Chaplinesque or Hollywodian forms. Watched after the years they seem strangely Brechtian vaudevilles. Soviet avantgardists were seeing a filmwork as a dense multilevel whole, equally a montage of attractions or the disruption of an artificial visual spectacle, and the sound acted like a final storm, sending the filmwork the final revolutionary shivers.

Kino: Russian Film Pioneers 1909-1957, BFI Southbank, London, 1st pt until June 30

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

We Want to Be Modern - Polish design exhibition

[unedited version of an article that appeared in ICON 094 April 2011here]

more photos

“We are aiming at a beautiful future, but we cannot see its shape yet, we cannot imagine the form and the scope of the life we are aspiring to. Which is why we want and we demand that visual arts show us this good, just and happy future life” – so said Jerzy Hryniewiecki, designer and theorist in the 1st issue of the “Projekt” magazine from 1956, heralding the new commandments of life after the 'Thaw' in People’s Poland. Modernity became a fetish for the society. The exhibition We Want To be Modern. Polish Design 1955-1968 from the Collection of the National Museum in Warsaw shows a flamboyant, glamorous and complicated face to the oft cited, but frequently misunderstood socialist-era Polish design. This period proved to be the most interesting in the vast collection of the Museum, which still has no permanent exhibiting space and seeks for a new one to store over 24,000 objects, now hidden in magazines. This show seeks to change it.

In post-war Poland there was a general necessity of restoration. It was not only a dream, but rather a dramatic necessity in a country left in total destruction after the war. The break was Warsaw's World Festival of Youth in 1955, a mass event typical of the People's Republics. Carnivalesque street decorations were designed by the students from the city’s Fine Arts Academy. Before the 'Thaw' Polish designers couldn’t refer to the 20s and 30s avant-garde, because Socialist Realism did not permit any steps outside its canon. The liberation from sotsrealism brought enormous hunger for everything new. That included also not purely decorative arts: literature, theatre, music. This time saw the formation of the Polish schools of poster design (Tomaszewski, Cieślewicz, Młodożeniec) and cinema (Wajda, Polański, Munk). In other words, it was the most original culture Poland had in the 20th century. Lots of formerly forbidden experimental art from the West was available, the new generation of artists, who started their education after the war left the academies, and there was a chance that the promises of the failed avant-garde projects of the interwar period could be introduced into life.

Many Polish artists of the period were devoted socialists, believing they were building the new Poland, but designers were apparently less subjugated to the power apparatus and much less controlled. It seems that decorative arts were freer than so-called pure art. Their call was to make the life under socialism finally beautiful, and polymaths, like architect Oskar Hansen, author of the famous “open form” theory with wife Zofia, film-maker Jan Lenica, Jerzy Sołtan, Wojciech Fangor, Wojciech Zamecznik, were designing everything from film posters or book covers, to cars, a pioneer shawl or a lipstick advertisement, at the same time being painters and sculptors. There were no barriers between artistic/commercial.

Among the most popular features of the new aesthetics were soft lines, vivid colors, natural, light materials, asymmetrical, slanted forms taken from biology or science, made possible by the use of plywood, fiberglass, or textile printing techniques. Art was supposed to parallel the exploration of the world on a micro as well as a macro scale. Hence Polish designers were taking from such giants as Alvar Aalto, Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen or abstract high art as well: there’s an influence from Henry Moore, Picasso, Matisse, but also Klee, Arp, Brancusi, Pollock or Informel painting. The Warsaw’s Institute of Industrial Design was the queen bee’s cell of the Polish design of that era - there the artists were preparing the prototypes, which were then presented on exhibitions and sold to factories. This way an average Polish family could afford a fragment of the futuristic dream of luxury in their houses. The then very popular and now rare and sought after Ćmielów ceramic figures are a perfect example of the more mass produced but stylistically unique design of the time.

The question lurking in the exhibition space is whether it was possible to develop a specter of a luxurious consumption when there was no real possibility of consumption. Many of the projects were never actually introduced into life, unacceptable to government officials. But the main elements of the style remained in every Polish house and they were truly showing the nation the importance of material culture again after the war.

We Want To be Modern. Polish Design 1955-1968 from the Collection of the National Museum in Warsaw February 4th – April 17th 2011

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Wielkanoc, "Girlscarbines"

[first published in The Wire #330 August 2011]

Dziewczyny Karabiny
Manufaktura Legenda

Virgin Mary does the splits – the world falls in!/The communion of holy white wafers of snow covers her eyes and face/ The world of white altars – cemeteries of paradise. This is not, surprisingly, from any Norwegian Black Metal band, but a song called Snow Queen by the Polish new wave group Wielkanoc (Easter, or Great Night, to render its double meaning) from a small Polish industrial town of Lubin, in Lower Silesia, who lasted less than 3 years and were killed, alongside with so much of what was interesting in the Polish alternative scene, just after the collapse of communism around 1990.

Dziewczyny Karabiny (Girlscarbines) was never actually released, and compiles live recordings from the festivals where the group wowed the public and critics, such as Jarocin in 1988, or from the Rozgłośnia Harcerska radio (known for its support of progressive groups in People's Poland) the same year. No wonder they did – live Wielkanoc was a knockdown combination of the moody and the unpolished. Even today it is amazing, how such sophisticated groups were possible in the suicidally grey Poland of the 1980s. As young people from a small industrial town, they knew they had to invent a world around them to have anything on their own. Pretty much, you could say, as did the post punk bands of British industrial areas, but they certainly didn’t have the Citizen Militia running at them with truncheons after the gigs.

What is greatest in Wielkanoc is probably the originality and real provocation in the lyrics. Kasia Jarosz was a truly charismatic vocalist and lyricist, introducing to the nearly all-male Polish scene a rare, assured yet raw female presence, and giving the censors lots of work. Regular meals/Warm checked blankets/Speedy sidewalks/Slit-eyed spiders/Rainy alleys/Train station open/public toilets/female male copulate/The promised protein/no-mans protein. Nobody at that point dared to sing about grim sexuality in communist Poland like this, and there’s definitely no sadder elegy for a spared sperm on the toilet door in any music.

The album’s publication after so many years comes as a part of a wider retrieving of the lost legacy of the Polish punk scene by the same people who were engaged in the volume Generacja (The Wire Feb ‘11). Along with the booklet (sadly, only in Polish) which gathers unique pictures of the band and festivals and (translated) lyrics, Dziewczyny Karabiny tells a fascinating story of the functioning of the new music under the decaying socialist regime. Mainstream and alternative meant something completely different in this economy, where every small dom kultury had a certain budget they had to spend, and frequently supported young rock bands, running alongside the first attempts to capitalize on the music by the more commercial bands of the era. And the fact 1990 destroyed such a rich musical culture only adds another fascinatingly ambivalent layer

Generation - book on Polish punk

[first appeared in: The Wire #324 Feb '11]

Michał Wasążnik/Robert Jarosz
Ha!art (paperback/336 PP)

In the 1983 BBC adaptation of Alan Bennett’s An Englishman Abroad, when a Shakespearian actress on a guest appearance in Moscow asks the spy Alan Bates, “What else is there?” (ie apart from ugly clothes and dull people), he responds with a smile, “the system”. That all-pervasive system, too, was a constant presence in the Polish experience, most explicitly after 1945. It dictated the shape of Poland’s art and determined the way Poles felt about the state and themselves: always infiltrated by the system. The common Western view of Poland under communism must have been like the one represented in The Style Council’s “Walls Come Tumbling Down” video from 1985 Warsaw: grey, devastated streets, grim Soviet monuments and the shadow of the Palace of Culture and Science, a gift from Stalin, towering above it all; but nevertheless some enthusiastic small crowd gettng carried away in a nightclub.

But that was the 1980s. Generacja, a photo album now printed in both Polish and English by the renowned Cracow niche publisher Ha!art, is trying to break with precisely this stereotype. Apart from the usual assemblage of associations – drabness, poverty, grim architecture, the shops’ empty shelves, the sense of claustrophobia stifling the breath of the citizens, preventing them from any form of more liberated expression – there was also a place for fun, joy, being young, irresponsible and crazy. During the late 1970s, particularly the few years between approximately 1976 and General Wojciech Jaruzelski proclaiming martial law on TV on 13 December 1981, there was a colourful, unique punk attitude across Poland, expressed in legendary cult clubs like Warsaw Riviera-Remont or later, in the 80s, on youth music festivals such as Jarocin.

The large A4 format book can properly expose the both colour and black & white Michał Wasążnik’s marvellous pictures, perfectly documenting the era’s nervous, angular glamour. This fantastically talented photographer was never properly appreciated in Poland, and has lived in Norway for more than 20 years. Robert Jarosz’s narrative is constructed in rock journalism’s most popular format: an oral history. The text is based on a large number of interviews with the scene’s vital participants, such as Robert Brylewski, Maciej ‘Magura’ Goralski, or Tomek Świtalski (all of whom played in probably the scene’s most influential group, Kryzys), with some strangely perverse nods towards such ambivalent creatures as Jerzy Urban, the communist government’s PR man – an especially nasty but fascinating figure.

Typical group names – Kryzys, Tilt, Brygada Kryzys, TZN Xenna, Deuter, Dezerter, Izrael – tell their own story about Polish punk attitude. But it doesn’t tell the whole story. The most interesting thing about Generacja is the way it unveils the genuine originality and vitality of the Polish counterculture of these times, its carnivalesque ability to have fun. There were soft drugs everywhere, distributed without many problems; there were also secret police infiltrating the musicians and concerts. Parties were organised for epileptics, schizophrenics and erotic experimentation. Yes, even in the darkest times under the communist regime, there was the possibility of genuine fun, and plenty of Polish young folks were willing to have it.

It’s just a pity it was such a boys’ game. Although the first ever punk gig in Poland was by The Raincoats, sadly women never got into Polish punk, or haven’t played a significant role in it – although this is frequently lamented by the male former participants of the scene. (There was the charismatic Pola Mazur of The White Volcanos, or Pyza, drummer with several groups, or Kora from Maanam, but she’s a part of a different faction of popular music) There’s a note of regret, shame even, over why the scene failed to realise its potential. One could argue that because of the extreme patriarchy of the Catholic and masculine culture in Poland, which has barely changed its face even today, even punk, which was supposed to be as basic, sharp and one-dimensional as possible – didn’t manage to pierce it. Pola disappeared, as did so many others, after 1981, and became a comedian in California. That was basically it: unlike the youth in the Latin America at the same time, the Poles never grasped guns, they didn’t take to the streets, but chose internal or real emigration instead.

There’s a sense of unrealised potential, disaffection with the present, and general frustration here, but with a hint of satisfaction that there was a real energy, a real culture going on, against all the odds. Although some now claim that the festivals were only a safety valve for the youth so that they wouldn’t try to destroy the system, we can see how they started to take on their own life. Polish punk and post-punk was never purely ‘journalistic’, and the will to live a relatively ‘normal’ youth – or to live Western youth’s youth (minus the consumption, which remained a fantasy) – vindicates the power of the music.

Cabaret Cixous

[full version of my review of Maria Minerva's Cabaret Cixous, from The Wire magazine #332, Oct 2011. From now on, I'm going to put here my otherwise not available articles published in British press]

Maria Minerva
Cabaret Cixous
Not Not Fun

Although Maria Juur aka Maria Minerva's debut album Cabaret Cixous starts with a song entitled These Days, it's not a new version of Nico's melancholic confession. But the tormented life of Christa Paffgen seems only at first a completely incongruous element to Minerva's private mythology, as presented on her previous EP releases, especially Tallinn at Dawn, full of complicated allusions to feminine desire, schizophrenic sexuality and various difficult (un)pleasures. Like Nico, Minerva struggles for feminine expression and presence in the music. And Juur's dreamy, oceanic, but uncompromising femininity is not miles away from Nico's astonishing gothic folk solo records. Too easily called “woozy” or “romantic”, she's rather testing out the expectations of a young, sexy girl. She's connected to “chillwave” only via a method of sound as if found after 2 or 3 decades lying full fathom five in a rusty swimming pool somewhere in a villa in Los Angeles. Noble Savage and especially Tallinn at Dawn showcased her production skills, an ability to put rich layers of sound one onto another with incredible charm and beauty.

In her escape or at least problematization of the usual associations of femininity, she was using ironically romantic titles and retro pop and disco hooks, then elegantly disrupting them in her charming sound-cum-psychoanalysis machine. Yet an ambitious title belies how Cabaret Cixous shows the signs of overproduction (her third release in six months!). She goes further than before, risking pretension in citing Helene Cixous, philosopher and guru of ecriture feminine, who gained fame after her 1975 essay The Laugh of Medusa. This text attempts to define woman's writing and her dependence on logocentric language. Freud said that woman always looks at herself in a schizophrenic way, assuming the role of a man. Medusa was supposed to take this view back. “Men haven't changed a thing, they've theorized their desire for reality.” says Cixous. Thing is, here we look at Medusa and discover that she's not only alive, but she's beautiful and she's laughing.

In another self-conscious move, Juur claims here only a Cixous cabaret-making, nothing more than that, neither serious, nor academic. Hence the karaoke pop tunes, cheap new age synth ballads, purposely “bad sound” and, as someone said, “cellphone fidelity”. Yet as we know, cabarets turned out to be the most serious catalyst of any worthwhile art of the 20th century. Here, the cabaret is a young woman in her room, an Estonian on a willing London exile, trying various masks in front of her mirror, looking sometimes grotesque, sometimes ridiculous, sometimes seductive, putting beauty into question. Cabaret is equally about the masquerade in this infinitely narcissistic theatre, as it is about inscribing these private things into some bigger scheme. But then again, it realises it is after all “only pop music” released by the most fashionable label of the season, so it stops somehow in the middle. What makes this record special nevertheless, is its longing for undefined freedom, for means of self-expression, an Easterner questioning the latest Western devices. Who in female pop is still even asking such questions today?

Friday, 6 May 2011

Love is Lovely

Carl in one of his manic, passionate posts about love and its discontents:

Equally of course I know lots of couples who have been together for years and are happy, and whose love for each other I don’t doubt. But you need love, without love your relationship is just one more thing you have to manage, one more negotiation between your fear and need, one more drain on your spirit, one more cost/benefit analysis. It will weigh on you, you'll begin to steel yourself for your partner’s return home from work, find you're hyper-alert to every nuance and tic of their mood, feel your heart sink when the phone goes and it’s them.

yes, love is lovely, when you love, things like concern, focus, attention, involvement just go naturally out of your noble inside and you just never feel any selfish, self deprecatory or unglamorous feelings, or think ignoble thoughts, they are just naturally blocked and swept away from your brain by the miraculous activity of loving.. well, only it's just not true, at least not all the time. we know it's not so easy. you know it yrself Carl, and you were, as I recall, writing once about waiting all day for 'her' to say she loves you, and when she finally did, it wasnt so meaningful. because people are moody, neurotic creatures, sometimes erratic, sometimes generous, but still bit unpredictable. especially in those times and especially in certain circles. and the most genuine, authentic love can be sometimes put into hard times by our neuroticism. we want good, it turns ut bad..but we love each other, so it doesnt matter, does it? precisely, the fact we had previous dissappointments, we are wary, we are weary, we dont want to get hurt, and with two neurotic individuals it gets even more difficult..

im just saying that love isnt ever just lovely, or that you may love someone to pieces, want only the good of this person and still get hurt. I wish all the lovers, that only the purest, unmediated products were issuing from their deep, beautiful selves, and the bad demand just never actually happened to their hearts, but actually, why not to demand, I ask you. when you feel dissatisfied, a right to demand should be a sacred one and lets demand, and first of all, from ourselves. amen.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Last Train to Berlin

The latest manifestation of my Ostalgie. Films by a directors duo, Dieter Koster & Hannelore Conradsen, depict everyday life of West Berliners living next to the wall, some small time crooks, youth taking illegal substances way before even the Christane F. age, but first of all a great chance to see some of the raw footage.

This is here purely for the visual reasons, I have no time/energy to expand it right now, there are at least 5 posts pending in my "editing" page, but what if the proper moment for posting them somehow passed before I had a chance to got back to them and now the mind is completely blank. For those who got interested in my story of a solitary girl in front of the computer, entrapped by the crap technology while crying her days away when her boyfriend stays on the other side of the channel, this is happily gone, I'm in my "second" hahaha "homeland" England again, experiencing a somewhat premature spring, but a combination of pseudo-autumn with piercing wind and glimpses of sun more like. Meanwhile, the Egyptian revolution took place, Poland yet again was immersing itself in craziness over Smolensk victims and our Formula 1 driver Robert Kubica's car crash, I debuted in the British press (look out for my pieces in the February and March issues of the Wire & hopefully the next ones as well), was reading a lot of a wonderful poet Thom Gunn, whom I'm translating, came with about 10 equally fantastical plans of how to stay-in-the-Uk-and-not-starve, but basically the things has been terrifically exciting if only a little bit precarious and unstable.

But next, when only my brain will start to function normally again and some ideas will start to come up, with my Eastern Europe musings, I'm planning to get far more serious. The most annoying and serious use of pop in the countries on the East of the Bug river, or Oder, more accurately, seems to be the way music is used to support various regimes. I hope to write for instance about the terrifying use of music by Lukashenko in the election in Belarus lately, and report a bit more about the Ukrainian scene, because I'm going to Kiev soon. In the meantime, there will be some "naked German women" (actually not necesserily of German extraction), because I discovered that my blog is very frequently googled by some action-seeking pornographs, dialling "sex pyzik", "naked little girls masturbating" or aforementioned naked Teutonic daughters. Not to let my readers down, soon I shall fulfill those expectations.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Agata's Boy is a Computer

It's late evening on Sunday 23rd of January and I just realised I haven't met anyone within the past week, since my boyfriend left for his country. I mean, I was leaving the house, of course, I was seeing lots of people on the streets (living in a big city man is never fully alone, so to speak), I had many phone conversations (two of them of a longer & deeper nature), I attended one meeting about a late artist I greatly admire, where I've meet lots of friends and had a few chats with them, but mostly I've been staying at home, and my conversations or thoughts exchanges, although some of them very engaging, occured via internet. I was reading, doing research, translated 2 long texts into English, written 1 longer and couple of shorter articles, worked on my book. Seen three films. Listened to lots of music (also to write about it). Some of it was truly compelling esthetic experiences. But honestly, I can't say I had any form of deeper in-real-world interaction with other human beings (dismissed two invitations to go out in the evening because of the workload, which now I regret).

Something literally shrinked within when I thought about it, although there's nothing there that should be at any rate shocking for anyone. Lots of us live like this nowadays, especially if we're freelancers working at home (and don't have flat mates, as I do). Lots of us live online, lots of us move the working hours into the night and sleep until noon or later. Still, I'm utterly terrified that I managed to do that at all. Wasn't something in me craving for such contact? How did I manage to spend so many hours in this flat not even noticing it? Even if it's winter, it's cold, night falls at 4pm and there's not much to do in the January evenings. I suddenly dropped my work altogether, pondering when exactly did I accept, just like that, this kind of apalling solitude.

On the much praised album from the last year, "North" by Darkstar, one of the Hyperdub flag ensembles, there's a song, which was also a much youtube-played 2009single, Aidy's Girl's a Computer. Heard it many times, but must say that until today, when I played it sitting alone in my flat, it didn't struck me with equal power. (Am an ignorant as far as the technique aspects of the music are concerned, but) It starts with some torn, as if cut out pieces of a computer generated/manipulated voice. As if from the deepest, darkest of digital voids, this voice formulates first the word "I" and then "feeling", then recurring throughout the rest of the song, fragmented & layered. It at first sounds like some kind voice test, but of course in connection to the songs title emerges with a quite distrurbing meaning. There's no story or narrative in this song, and the better, because it would render it banal. as Sam Davies written in the November review in the Wire, North is an essentially synth pop album, but the song stands out, belonging to the former dubstep phase. The simple two step rhythm, plus xylophone, this song seems to me an incredibly touching rendering of the tired, solitary nights I spend in front of my computer, trying to connect with the person I love, waiting for the machine to be "on" and the heartbreaking silence that is opening whenever the connecting devices decide not to work. And towards the end of the song, the machine voice says "I'm on". Yet I cant quite describe what is so moving in this song, its autumnal atmosphere and soundscape looking so basic & flat.

Recently we stopped using skype, because my headphones were broken and my stolen internet was just not doing it, and when it was faintly working, he was saying he can hear me as a woman robot, which allegedly was sounding sexy. Now we have to be tight at phone calls because they cost fortune, but funny how one is always disappointed by a phonecall, no matter how long it lasts. In his review Sam is calling "Aidy" a "modern lament" and as effective as it sounds, it is a lament, and to avoid any pretentious metaphor at the end, it's sort of a hymn of the crap technology, of the heartbreaking unfulfilled relationship we have with it, of its broken, unhappy promises, as well.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Bless the Soviet Hipsters!/Perils of Europop

[picture above: Savage Progress, a pop group in the 1980s formed in Kenton, England which had hits in Germany, Austria and Switzerland]

Just been reading a review of a 1986 Neu! release by Mark K-Punk in the Wire few issues ago, where he's complaining about its untimeliness in general, comparing some of it to the "Europop British tourists will bring from their Mediterranean vacation". I was thinking about this phenomenon of Europop in relation to my previous musings, it is after all a product of certain kind of Eurovision culture, European Union, post-war thing, from ABBA to Dana International (I love them both), but also elading to lots of very, very bad music, and funny it evolved into this semi-universal code of extremely trashy & kitschy soft-porn show.

Meanwhile, I have fans of my new music approach, got a letter from the author of this lovely Europop blog. my atemopt on the analysis of the Eurovision culture grows in my mind nevertheless and hopefully will take its shape here soon.

Also, got more into the Altered Zones website, which is very succesfully hiding the fact it is by kids of the Pitchfork era & owned by Pitchfork.
here Simon Reynolds muses on the Altered Zones generation, whose flag music is chillwave, all sort of generated by Ariel Pink and lo-fi, witches-in-the-forest esthetics, wonder what is the link between this & dubstep and hauntology.

but Im absolutely captivated by this clip to the Rangers, from their album Suburban Tours (sic!) showing that love for "undead social projets of Modernism" have, unnoticed, become some kind of underground mainstream & the question is whether there really is something to it more than a passing fashion, and what does it signify culturally. It's telling, that girls and boys on both sides of the Atlantic somehow think wandering around empty, derelict tower blocks is the most hip thing to do and we can only speculate who's responsible for that! Crisis had its role in it, no doubt.


Also, investigated a bit Puro Instinct and the word "Stilyagi", which she used in a song I posted, and it turned out Miss Kaplan & other chillwavers really thought this all thoroughly out. Stilyagi were Russian, or rather Soviet youth fascinated by the West, culturally, visually, what expressed in their style of clothing, musci etc...the very precursors of the hipsters, one may say.

And there's also this relatively fresh feature film on Stilyagi, called, in translation, simply - Hipsters! frocks, songs, atmosphere. There's a direct link between the Soviet youth from the 1920, 30s, 1950s & 1980s...

Also, this is so much exactly what one needs in the grim season, when the day ends at 4pm, account is empty, internet works sporadically and the general feeling of the End-of-the-World is crawling on us.

As far as the Stilyagi-cum-punk goes, there was a whole wave of those bands, the most colorful being Bravo.

Leningradskiy Rokenroll!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Bravo was created on the wave of teh Stilyaga culture revival, some kind of Easternized beats combined with Mods & hipsters (dwelling on real 50s hipsetrs and anticipating the later revival in the 00s as well), but to me they look more like post-punky rockabilly'ists. either way, isnt that gorgeous? they were fascinated by the Western culture, but it was coming to them already in its distorted, a bit caricaturized form. there the John Peel thesis ("strange things happen to pop in isolation") would be actually true - trying to mime the West Russians or demo-peoples in general were creating something rich and strange (hoep to show some more Polish examples soon). It also shows the beginnings of the Retro Culture in full spread - all those big beat & early rock'n'roll revivals, (followed by the neverending festival of the 80s that lasts alreday longer than the decade itself), signs of a derivative, self-eating, nostalgic culture we have now up to its caricatiral form. There it has started, in the 80s, or, more possibly, when "the history ended" in 1989, as Fukuyama put it, after the collapse of communism/The Wall, so greatly described in Joshua Clover's fantastic 1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sign About. It also brings to mind so many 80s UK bands built on a similar spur: Madness, The Specials, taking Mod or 50s culture, its climat & iconography, into a new space.

At the beginning Bravo had an amazing Zhanna Aguzarova (she has a massively detailed Russian Wikipedia entry, must be a cult figure there) on the vocals, who was later expelled by the official authorities (!!!) and replaced by a geezer, to the rest of the band's fearful acceptance. Then they stopped being in "underground" anymore & turned into a very conventional pop/rock band. In their early days they remind me of Polish Maanam, which should be the next on my focus here. Which will in general become: the growth of new wave, 80's synth-pop and some disco 70's mainly Eastern bands as a social movement? we shall see.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

In Bed With Doda

фотокино - FOTOMOTO "CHAT" from Anna Bekerskaya on Vimeo.

In addition to the yesterdays post: Owen drag my attention to this article, about a completely contemporary Ukrainian music scene, that emerged around Orange Revolution (here), focusing on a band called Fotomoto, singing in French, that were the darlings of the late John Peel. Peel wasn't exactly right saying that they were completely isolated from the Western sound ("strange things happen to pop in isolation"). What allured him was the singing in French and dream-poppy atmosphere. The idea the East lives in isolation is another stereotype that is attractive for the West I guess. The musicians themselves say they feel a part of the global world, im sure that around 2004-5 all of them were highly networked! But a strange situation: you cant get their cds anywhere, for people who were capitvated by them via Peel, they remained an air-only ethereal phenomenon. But isn't it sound great, actually?

But another thing Peel says there seems fairly typical:
'Most music I get from eastern Europe tends to be rather grim metal stuff, not awfully good, and when you see the bands live - of course this is a gross generalisation - there's always a kind of cabaret approach. There's always someone in the band dressed as a clown or a monk, and the vocals are always terribly theatrical.' But what is bad about Theatrical exactly? Of course, I'm perfectly aware how bad in general metal bands may be, but that also complicated my thesis from yesterday, the singing in English/in your native speech thing. Because precisely, just think about all those very bad metal bands, or just the absolutely horrible/fascinating form of commercial pop everywhere (be it mutation of Europop - remember Eurodance? etc). they mostly sing in their respective languages.

here more spectacular examples.

She (they?) are singing in Russian (I envy you seeing it for the first time):

and she is singing in Polish (although I'd give a lot not to understand what about)

Doda, performing with her "band" elegantly called Virgin, is a proud Katie Price of Poland. Funnily enough she's a couple with a leader of the internationally known metal superband, Behemoth, maybe one of those John Peel was talking about. Also, you'd be curious to know, there's a massive form-content discrepancy, usually. I mean, what she sings about has nothing to do with the entourage. you'd think it's all porn & all, but what's probably even worse, these are attempts at lyrical poetry. yes.

and she is singing in French


Also, one of the strangest phenomena of the beginning of 21st century: TaTu

All of them just wanted to be Madonna (rather re In Bed With Madonna than to focus her fine pop moments), or later, Lady Gaga, or emulate old times divas (P. Kass committs an unforgivable profanation of any idea of Edith Piaf, or Francoise Hardy, whenever she opens her mouth), but who actually knows what people responsible for Nikita had in mind.

It's not exactly how do you imagine national bards, is it? Nikita & Doda sing in Russian/ Polish, because there's a massive audience for that, which emerged in the strange post-capitalism times in UKR/PL, in a culture where even baring your tits in a Reality Tv seems simply not enough & being a criminalist is a cool & accepted way of life.

Some people like to watch celebrity shows or reality TV, others - read biographies of famous people or aristocratic families, others think that reading Kolakowski or the late pope JP2 will save them from all the atrocities of the world. In a way, there're no big differences between them.

Monday, 17 January 2011

They Play From Behind the Curtain

Reading this interview with Piper Kaplan, from Puro Instinct (via Pop Jukebox) (the only reason I know about her is because she is from the Ariel Pink constellation), I found out about the story of this amazing compilation, containing four Leningrad bands, that was the first ever presentation of the Russian punk in the West. Released in 1986, well into the Glasnost era, it still had to be smuggled. However some of her statements sound a bit naive ("I also think that Russia is really cool, because Russia is on the outside what America is on the inside. It's really seedy, and fucked up, and corrupt. It's like the innards are exposed. I like that. They’re proud of it, and wear it on their sleeve. I think that’s pretty cool. My idea of Russia is kind’ve this weird apocalypse, Troma version of America."), I think there's a lot to it, much more than Miss Kaplan can imagine.

When in the post on Pulp few days ago I was writing about the inability of Polish bands to fully emancipate from the influence of the West (at the same time being trapped within history, that made them either be journalistic, or completely nihilistic, and no wonder why - later will elaborate on this subject), the silent premise of those statements was that of course, there were nations that had it worse as far as social and political history goes and most definitely I feel that despite being exposed to this music & culture for years, my research on this matters barely started. There's a lot to be found out. But to better imagine this entrapment of the rock/punk bands under the Warsaw Pact, it is worth to imagine how it is to sing to a music invented by English-speaking lads. I guess that the fact now everybody sings in English, what wasn't the case 30 years ago, is a sign not only of the culture's globalisation and homogenisation, but speaks about the cultural limitations of the genre itself. I know it may sound funny after so many has happened to "rock" music we can't recognise it as a genre anymore, but the mediocrity of teh current "indie", this sort of stagnation in a form set decades ago & its selling well speaks volumes about the conservatism of the current era and proves either there's still a public space generated by music to take over or that we are in a state of a total, total bankrupcy. You decide. Or that, coming back to the linguistical thing, there are always two parallel 'scenes' in the countries: one of the English singing more or less West-copyists, and another, that still struggles with the real singing-songwriting, that occurs, I think, in your Muttersprache. (Writing in English, which scene's part should I feel?)

Some of the Punk on the other side of the Curtain story I mention in the review in the current Wire magazine where I reviewed much anticipated by me alternative history of Polish punk, Generacja by Michal Wasaznik & Robert Jarosz, telling how things were especially before the introduction of the Martial Law in 1981, which I heartily recommend to you. And if I ever said that there was no more than the system vs. the youth thing, that would be an unforgiven simplification. The quasi capitalist consumption at the end of the 1970s was in a full blow and the society obviously knew numerous ways how to obtain the desired goods or lifestyles, be it smuggled clothes, food or Western records. And definitely, from the late 1970s on, the communist system was so rotten, old, flaking off, being a parody of itself more than ever before, and if the economy is a joke and the reality you live in is a joke, what do you have to lose?

The story of how the West mingled/mirrored/copied the East and vice versa has a funny reflection in a story of a "rebelled" American female punk, who was so attracted by the Russian roughness & brutality, she went there, got together with the bands and released the 1st LP of their music on this side of the curtain, and had relationships with the members of the scene, which is a funny episode of the erotic relationship between USA & USSR. So as the new generations of American girls are seduced by the Communist Chic, we can only look forward to the fruits of this love.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Pulped life

[a slightly changed version of an article I've written a year ago and published in a Polish magazine called Lampa (issue 1/2/2010), inspired by this piece, of course. So now, when Owen publishes his book, no one will tell I nicked my ideas from him]

Polish pop & punk bands were journalistic, Polish bands were not excelling in great lyrics. This text seeks to overcome this general opinion, and maybe come up with some new views. In the history of popular music of single countries there’s their history written, social, political, intellectual, it conserves the cultural momentum, the language, style, views, customs, morals and consciousness. I initially started writing this text in a reaction to Owen’s two part essay on Pulp - where he was overtly stating this was the best UK band of the 90s and why it was so special – but it was probably the article’s cheekiness and general flamboyancy that made me to rethink whether and why my country, Poland, never had its version of Jarvis Cocker. Because it was probably this band who captured, better than anything from that period, the zeitgeist, drowned in the Brit-pop’s crassness and cockiness, and left victorious this embarrassment that Brit pop was, without fraternization with Blair or participating in the Blur vs. Oasis thing, still topping the UK charts with Common People in 1995.

Through they style-jangling, eclectic, nonchalant (I thought at that time!), but very accessible music they were the most exciting and moving band at the time, touching upon the themes of the class war, patriarchy, inequalities, and managed to do so through very private and idiosyncratic obsessions of its frontman and lyricist, the one and only Mr Cocker. Because really, the lyrics were the most important in this band, although all of us were dancing to the ‘hits’ from Different Class.

Because there they were – and I remember very well when I bought my first of their albums, it was Common People of course, and it was a cassette, and I was thirteen, 1996, initially prompted to buy it allured by the cover and the artwork of it, pictures of the family events, weddings, communal life and this whole ridiculous slogan ‘We just want to be different’ – wondered, why exactly did they mean? I remember the initial awkwardness of my acquaintance with Pulp very well. For a girl who at that time just started reading music press – and it was a good time for the press in the still freshly free Poland, just a year before a first real popcultural magazine started, called “Machina”, a mixture of Face, I-D and Melody Maker, where I first read about William S. Burroughs, Afrika Bambataa and pop art probably – it was quite something. Don’t remember whether I even read a review of Pulp, just there they were, and I remember just being seduced by the title – Different Class. At that time I already knew and was listening to, among others, Portishead, Bjork, Blur, had few important soundtracks, like (forgive me) Trainspotting, after which I started listening to Joy Division and New Order, and at that time, in Poland, believe me, listening to (Whats the Story?) Morning Glory didn’t condemn you to the social inexistence. Au contraire, no one were interested in this music in my school or among my friends. There were just me and tons of cassettes in my room.

After that there was dozens of British bands in my life, discovered and rediscovered. The moment when I realised how much a context of a place from where the band was was decisive. If you’re from Sheffield you don’t play like guys from Glasgow, and definitely not like blokes from Liverpool or Manchester. Pulp were from Sheffield, famous for its industry and brutalist architecture, with the great social experiment that was the Park Hill complex at its front. It was to be the city of the future, there the dreams about the final industrialization were supposed to fulfill, it was a fine transposition of futurist ideas into the every day life. Cabaret Voltaire, Human League (who first performed as the Future!) or Comsat Angels were from there, among others. But Pulp does not wear significant traces of an influence of the local scene. Cocker founded Pulp aged 15, and his natural references were Roxy Music and (I guess) some influences of Bowie, with a vision of a sexy, feminized but not gay, vocalist, inclination to frocks and luxury, and refined pop.

Who is usually founding bands? Funnily enough, unlike Britain, in Poland it was rather kids from intelligentsia, with an access to family libraries and at least small financial security. Not in UK, as we know. But Cocker was hardly a working class hero. He had it written on his face he was a good student, a well read teacher’s favorite, who attended music lessons and were active in the school theatre. But he clearly wanted a success. And where the hell is a success and the access to the ladies if not in the realm of rock music. If you watch the very early videos of Pulp with Jarvis, included on the post-split Hits dvd, what you see is an incredibly tall, eccentric, quirky, nonchalant, black-humoured but perfectly aware of his uniqueness pretty boy in oversized glasses, whose every gesture, every whim on his face, seem to be perfectly directed, so perfectly it suggest his fragile and embittered ego. He desperately wants to be different, fucking Andy Warhol, combined with Bowie, and more Scott Walker than Bryan Ferry, and what not, and he will be restless and ruthlessly focused where he only wants to. He is like Cary Grant in Bringing Up a Baby – but whereas there only we, the audience knew he may be clumsy, but he’s pretty fucking hot, he’s a bloody Cary Grant after all! – this boy already is perfectly aware how bloody charismatic and special he is and how he will use it to his advantage in the music world. And what a spectacle of a man he is - and he knows it, even when he’s doing his grocery shopping. But look at him again, and then look at him a few years later. Jarvis wasn't a typical frontman, with his carefully staged video and gig persona, with his ridiculous height, thinness, overly long arms and may have appeared as even grotesque. (then we learned there was some heroine involved to this thinnes later). He looks like a Daddy Long Legs, isnt he, so fragile he would be thrown with a slight blow of a wind. If you look like that, you feel uneasy, uncomfortable, you stand out. There's no easy option for sexiness for you, you have to invent yourself. Hence the queer-but-straight, peculiar stage motion of Jarvis, his cabaret, theatrical characteristic "pointing" hands gestures, his studied as-if drunken/stoned manner of dancing, that seem like a parody of conventional male sexiness, but delivered together with this deep, baritone voice becomes Ueber-sexy...
On the Sheffield Band video, sitting together with his band mates, he seems very uncomfortable. They all, the band, love Sheffield, they really do – isn’t Sheffield a beautiful place? he asks rhetorically, equally rhetorically admitting he will never move to London. Ha bloody ha. His mind is already nowhere else.

I’m unfortunately not patient enough with describing frocks and style, if you want this, go to Jon Savage and England’s Dreaming – let me then release my inclination for sublimation and focus on the message. The message was truly ambivalent. It is hard just to put Jarvis strivings into the box of a prole resentment, because it was so much more. Pulp is a band of oppositions. Yes, of course, he was perfectly interested in making a career and fucking other bands’ chicks, but show me a 90s frontman actually more interested in the destinies of women? And with an equivalent of the quiet, but assured presence of Candida Doyle on the keyboards (somewhat a balance to the Jarvis’s flamboyancy). Another paradox is of course the nostalgia. Cheap nylon outfits, general atmosphere of tawdriness, that later was changed for the more expensive, but still far from luxurious 1930s-meet-1970s colorful shirts, velvet suits and pencil skirts. Nostalgic salubrious sound vs the epic rock, mechanical motorik referring to the Sheffield bands tradition and the sentimental balladry; cockiness and shyness. The sentimentalism, self obsessed and sexy, reeking with boredom, disappointment, resentment, inequalities, decadence, ennui, deviations, alienation, hedonism, despair. And compassion. All those girls and women dwelling those songs, from the early Little Girl, repeating the theme of a young woman, pushed into a marriage & children, and then deteriorating in a house in the suburbs. My favorite song from the early underrated 1987 Freaks album is I want you, with a metaphor of an old lover, who wants to “keep her and throw himself away” (is there a more beautiful metaphor of love?). “You could look like anyone else, If that’s what you want to do”, but she cant, he can’t look at her in any other way. Guilt, frustration, sick love, fear of love, are leitmotivs of the early Pulp. In Life must be so wonderful Jarvis continues over the sad destiny of his ex, who left the town and didn’t quite gain the success elsewhere, who he is mocking, bored to the degree he need not to even pretend anymore.

I have a quite unexplainable liking for Freaks, which are relentlessly bleak, one-note, monotonous album on boredom, unsatisfying sex and title’s “death of emotions”. Unlike other Pulp albums, there’s no playfulness, nearly no skips (apart from I Want You and What You See maybe) toward any other form or other kind of human interaction. There’re certainly pieces of art that doesn’t bring any hope, but the songs on Freaks are also badly written and produced and there’s perhaps no forgiving for that. Still, I can’t fully recover after subsequent listenings of Life must so wonderful, where there’s clear there’s something genuinely wrong with the world and our relationships. There must be a difference between sheer wallowing in our unhappiness and real unhappiness, which is total and absolute shiteness. There’s certainly a difference between acknowledging that your relationship or lack thereof is shit and eg., that people are cruel, and eg. rape and kill each other. Because one can just leave said relationship, paying probably with a few months of feeling shit or having a depression, but surely, things like politics fucking over generations after generations or mass murder are worse.

But the catastrophe of relationships in Cocker’s lyrics are not only a fault of the imperfect nature of an individual, not only of the male desire, which in the end must say “goodbye” even to a nicest and most sympathetic girl and look for another conquest, to avoid the suffocating emptiness. Or rather this emptiness takes place in a specific space: in cage-like, stuffy flats, without perspectives, among stupid and insignificant dreams, among passive women and frustrated men. The characters are usually from the lower social classes, who had a chance to have/taste some of a “better life”, which often ends in a total failure. All this is filtered through an openly misogynistic, self-ironic, monologueing hero, who is mocking his own pretension to grandeur and megalomania, which is also a side effect of a class-induced resentment. There’s no, apart from the Freaks, real misogyny in Jarvis’ lyrics, who was raised by and surrounded by women, the father left the house, and Jarvis frequently admitted he’s actually more interested in a woman’s psychic life. The misery, lack of chances and helplessness of women is a frequent theme there.

Jarvis also were fascinated by Scott Walker, who produced finally the We Love Life, album “nobody bought”, as Jarvis later said, and the whim, mysteriousness, grandiosity of his music is definitely present there, if not the most in the fragmented, whining, painful baritone of the frontman, nonchalant and full of authentic despair. These are lyrics about sex in a smaller city, like all that joyful forgetfulness of Razzmatazz or Babies. But no irony – irony was a clichéd du rigeur of the past few decades and enough of that. Jarvis’ hero may be truly a bastard, when he’s blagueing that “I wanna give you children and you might be my girlfriend”, but aren’t the alternative destinies of those girls actually much, much worse? All those stupid things, they don’t work anymore, leave hope you who cross the line of growing up & entering the society. The thing is all that is raconted from a proper perspective of time (“well it happened years ago”), and is actually told by a slightly lecherous thirty year old man, who really probably doesn’t give a fuck since a long time. Sweetness is still there though, and real sympathy.

My favorite album or rather group of songs come from This Is Hardcore recorded after the astonishing success of the Different Class. This is one of the saddest albums ever, also an album of the lost chances – made more commercial than intended, it has become a spectacular band’s suicide. Its really like in this Frederic Beigbeder book, 99 Francs, the peak of the celebrity culture, this is a nightmare of a fulfilled dream of money and fame, drowned in drugs and alcohol, with incredible 30 minutes opera (masterpiece!) of the title song and written as if from the other side, hilariously funny Help the Aged, with Jarvis flying on a wheelchair to another galactic, like in Tarkovsky's Solaris mixed with Monty Python Flying Circus. Fetishism, crime, suicide, hardcore pornography, drugs (there was heroine around, so did Jarvis get a near-death overdose or a nasty trip?), jokes about death (but you're dead already, aren't you?). Yikes indeed. This is hardcore is a post coital, post sexual, post libido, post mortem pure dreadness, that gives me shivers & a serious twist in my stomach.

Moreover, it's everything Freaks wanted to be but could never become. This is an album of an unmatched power, a hangover & existential haze encapsulated, it’s freak Hollywood drama, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd, Hitchcockian thriller with his women fixation (the projection of desire specifically Hitchcockian here!), cinema noir, showered with modern decadence, vanity, emptiness that can only come with a career in show business. This is a depiction of Jarvis Cocker’s state of mind after a year or two of taking advantage of finally getting on the top, of constant shagging anything that moves and partying hard. It nearly killed him, psychically, but there’s something great in the way he’s subliming it. Interesting, how eg. Bowie was embracing it (although it nearly killed him too, as we know at the end of the Station to Station there's nothing short of a goodbye-to-life declaration) and found himself much more inclined to hedonist pleasures, and actually never produced anything as dread-invoking as This is Hardcore - there's never such a menace, such desire-turned-something-terrible thing. It’s truly spectacular, pushed to the utmost degree, Twin Peaks/Mulholland Drive luxurious atmosphere of dread, like you were on a Eyes Wide Shut party, going straight to hell.

Truth is that is has to come to that, and it requires shitloads of hard work just as much as partying and immense self confidence, which comes after years of giving way too much fuck. And then you realize it doesn’t matter.

Pulp - Help The Aged
Załadowane przez: Pulp. - Odkryj inne klipy wideo.

Then Cocker got married, left for Paris, had a child, recorded a weak solo album, got divorced, produced among other things, Charlotte Gainsbourg album, recorded another solo album, whose highlight song is called I Never Said I Was Deep. Slightly disappointed by the first one, I actually begun to find the joyful embitterment of the second one fun. Well, he didn’t lose the classiness or sense of humor, naturlich, but the erotic neuroticism of Pulp is long passé.

So if I mourn something lacking within Polish (music) culture, is its not enough of literacy. The lack of striving to express their frustrations in an enough of a literate way. We limited ourselves to one-dimensional punk screaming/whining how special-but-nobody-knows-about-it songs that mostly sounded like cheap plagiarism over the Western bands. We seemed condemned to the music secondariness, so what about some lyrics experimentation? Sure there were frustrations, tons of them, but no one cared to put them into an artistic, poetic way. Yes, Im more than furious with how things went in Poland, because we have such a wonderful poetic tradition, such original literature, especially after 1945. What has happened with it, why it didint infiltrate the popular music?

Do we need and why, a Polish Jarvis? why do I miss such a figure in Polish cultural landscape? Why don’t we have equally nonchalant, whimsical, eclectic music, non-stripped of emotions? I’ll pass the general esthetical dependency of Polish popular music from the foreign, which condemns us to be eternal epigones. Lets focus on the layer of expression, ideology even. All music has its own esthetical ideology, Jarvis’ ideology was some projects from the past, filtered through his personal obsessions. Well, it is better not to mention our ideology. Polish bands, in result of those, and not the other, historical conditioning, had to, first of all, fight with the mythological SYSTEM, ‘komuna’, and didn’t have time or possibility to develop the esthetical or lyrical issues.

There’s also too big difference between our perception of socialism, obviously. Big assemblies, tradition of militancy, “classlessness” of the 30 years of the after-war period in UK, and then Thatcherism, strikes, when the industry was being destroyed are quite a different thing than the assemblies in Poland, under a quite different flag, or a general atmosphere of hopelessness, bleakness and greyness, especially of the last two decades of Peoples Republic. Maybe comparing the histories of our countries is idiotic in general. But hey, when I listen to Pulp, I still regret not having this chance. That the most popular songs in Poland have to necessary be bloody protest songs; and that we always, as a nation, preferred Clash to Sex Pistols. [well, a book called Generacja by Robert Jarosz, dismantles this image, but it came out a year after I’ve written this]. Class war, well, was something completely different here, was incorporated within the rotten ideology of late communism. Polish artist just couldn’t look at the socialist equality with hope. We also do not have a strong working class artist tradition, very few of the artists, maybe more among writers, belonged to the working class, art always being a domain of intelligentsia, who had privileged access to knowledge, books, education.

Funnily enough, when another self-proclaimed dandy, Paul Weller of the Style Council, wanted to show the bleakness of Thatcherism, he came nowhere else than to the grey Warsaw and shot Walls came tumbling down there in 1985. Now we watch this clip on youtube and proudly show it to our foreign friends, because Warsaw has become this really hip place. To me Warsaw is real, true punk. Ian Curtis knew what he was doing (although he probably meant Bowie’s Warszawa more). But funny that there’s no a Bowie song called “Berlin”, but there’s Warszawa. Still, people treat us as a living museum of communism (but people, go to neighbouring Ukraine for this purpose), whereas an ideal of contemporary Poland is a fucking small entrepreneur. Because maybe one of the problems of the culture in Poland under communism is that obviously it wasn’t socialist enough, and was basically as divided as anywhere else. Also dandyism as a way of life never actually found its way or tradition in Poland and died with the romantic poets.

Another thing is our level of consciousness. Young people coming to the festivals like Jarocin dreamed mostly of getting pissed and having sex in the bushes, they thought of the freedom and emancipation as well, but not knowing how it actually should’ve looked like. Punk in Poland was still v much about filth and vomiting, there were Solidarity, but all that was immersed in the omnipresent Polish Catholicism, and the progressive or anarchic circles already were seeing it all going toward right winged nationalism and capitalism. If we had lyrics about love, sex, unfulfillment, maybe paradoxically it only happened in the texts of one band, simple Teenage Love Alternative, then T.Love, whose frontman, Muniek, born in the same year as Jarvis (1963), is one of little working class born musicians in PL, who wasn’t ashamed to write about love. Muniek emancipated himself and gained a success comparable to Jarvis. Some also say that the more contemporary, 00s band, Cool Kids of Death (named after St Etienne song, of course!) was a late heir of Pulp. Their songs are fulfilled with similar resentment, unfulfilment, aspirationism. But whenever Pulp wanted to get there (and was getting there), CKOD were singing somngs of self-hating slackers. T. Love and CKOD sung a wish ablout collectivity, that never really happened, failed youth collectivities, refusal, hopelessness – CKOD coming from Lodz, a fallen working class city, no wonder etc etc.

WE never loved life, or ourselves, for that matter. Pity. Because this comparison between cultures and histories shouldn’t go towards revengeful or regretful jealousy really. But there was and are cultural complexes in us Poles that we unsuccesfully are trying to heal through similarly inept methods, like shock capitalism, privatisation, self denial or denying that the previous system had anything worthwhile in itself.

This is a far more complicated story and I'm not going to finish it right now, the story continues…