Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Thank you, Adrienne Rich
(May 16, 1929 to March 28, 2012)

also A Rich Life at the Boston Phoenix

and Adrienne Rich at

and Living In Sin, an analysis at Tourettesdujour.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

What’s so Criminal about Fiona Apple’s Award-winning Music & Video

Fiona Apple’s 1997 song “Criminal,” from her premiere album Tidal, is the biggest hit of her career so far, winning the Best Female Rock Performance Grammy Award at the 40th Grammy’s and peaking at #4 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks. The video version of the song, directed by big screen auteur Mark Romanek, won the 1998 MTV’s Best Cinematography award. Apple described the song as an ambivalent homage to the power of female sexuality. (Wikipeda: “Criminal”) The song begins with the lyrics: “I’ve been a bad, bad girl.” While the bad girl theme is not an uncommon motif in popular culture, popular culture products typically treat women as physically, emotionally, and sexually vulnerable. Sexually active women, especially women unfaithful to their male partners, typically are punished in popular entertainment. In this light it can be suggested Apple’s song and video conform to Antonio Gramsci’s ideology of “hegemony,” where “Organic Intellectuals” — pop singers in this case — provide “intellectual and moral leadership” utilized to negotiate a new consensus (Story, 80-81) regarding acceptable forms of sexual expression for women as our culture enters an era where autonomous women represent an ever increasing proportion of the economic and cultural community. The record company, Epic Records, a division of Sony Corporation, the second largest music publisher in the world, profited (obscenely) promoting this discourse while avoiding any threat to unrestricted capitalism, the keystone ideology of the most powerful component of our culture.

It’s worth noting that while this video is transgressive on a number of terms, it maintains substantial obeisance to the traditional male power manifestation of objectification of female body through voyeurism. (Rose, 109) In this case the power is shared as the scopophilic “object” (Apple) exercises scopophilic actions of her own, disrupting the standardized articulation between the viewer and the viewed and calling into question the semiology of the redirected “gaze.” Conventionally Apple objectifies both male and female bodies but more interestingly, Apple objectifies the spectator through aggressive and direct staring, and through the use of mechanisms such as cameras, photographs, and television screens, which serve to remind the viewers that they, too, are being observed. When a video monitor rises mysteriously out of the furniture, Apple’s on the screen, watching the viewer while still-photographs of her, also observing the viewer, emerge from another machine mere inches away. Scopophilia or Panopticon?

The music video opens with the pop singer pointing her camera directly at the viewer and taking a photograph. Her body is off-screen and her face is obscured by the camera, then the screen is momentarily white-washed by the singer’s camera flash. Thus, before we’ve had a chance to voyeuristically examine her, she has aggressively breached the invisible wall between viewer and viewed, making a “permanent” document which undermines the viewer’s sense of anonymity — in the first two seconds of the video. After visually panning over isolated consumer objects in an unidentified, middle-class domestile for several seconds, the singer reappears and takes a second flash photograph of the viewer! Apple is still completely obscured from our view, frustrating our sense of control over her as a scopophilic subject. After additional pans over unidentified consumer products, the singer reappears, camera in hand, no longer obscuring her face, but instead she stares intently, directly, and comfortably at the viewer, again disrupting the articulation between the viewer and the viewed. Immediately thereafter Apple is shown reclining on the ground, clothed but in a sexually suggestive pose entwined with other partially clothed women and the lyrics begin: “I’ve been a bad, bad girl.” The singer now sits up, looks directly at the viewer provocatively and confrontationally as her lyrics continue, “I’ve been careless with a delicate man.” This directly confronts the traditional semiology of masculinity by linking it with “delicacy,” a more feminine signifier.

The video continues in this vein delicately dancing between titillating and confronting the heterosexual male viewer. While there are no overt sex acts depicted nor mimed, the heterosexual male and homosexual female viewer see an aggressive young woman who predominantly, but not universally, takes what she wants. It’s worth noting that except for the pop singer, all other male and female bodies in this video have been depersonalized and objectified. Rarely is there even a portion of another person’s face shown, and frequently the viewer only sees small portions of objectified, sexualized bodies. Overtly voyeuristic, this video and the song it illustrates, disrupt the dominant paradigms of man as aggressor and woman as passive recipient. In a bathtub scene, in which male domination is inferred by showing an unidentified man with his feet on the singer’s neck, the text disrupts our expectations with Apple’s loud, powerful, and confident voice: “I know tomorrow brings the consequence at hand, but I keep livin’ this day like the next will never come,” she then responds orgiastically to her partner’s caresses. It’s hard to rationalize this female pop singer as a passive or reluctant under such circumstances.

With all this sexual heat it’s easy to overlook all that the video has neglected, Pierre Macherey suggests that viewing a text as having a single meaning is an “interpretive fallacy.” He states “all texts are ‘decentred’ in the specific sense that they consist of a confrontation between several discourses: explicit, implicit, present and absent” (Storey, 74). “Criminal,” in its adoring and salacious examination of inanimate consumer objects from vacuum cleaners to automobiles from liquor products to fashion attire, fails to negotiate or recognize the ever-diminishing purchasing power of the modern middle-class paycheck. What good is it to want these products if the average person can no longer afford even middle-class “luxuries”? It also fails to acknowledge or address the growing class of women and children living in poverty, the too-typical result of the sorts of steamy adolescent intercourse the film lustily depicts. Systemically, like in every hegemonic interaction funded by the power-class, the film fails to mediate on the profound economic injustice that is destroying the American Dream. The other factor that the video, “Criminal,” references but fails to mediate is the ever-growing problem of our non-existent privacy, of the panoptic nature of modern living. Yes, we enjoy, sexually and otherwise, surreptitiously viewing our neighbor’s bodies but all of us also are constantly on view for other purposes. Without our permission or awareness, the average American is photographed and videotaped hundreds of times a day by cameras installed, “panoptically,” in every part of our environment and those cameras monitor our every moment. “The major effect of the Panopticon [is] to induce … a state of consciousness and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (Storey, 131). “Criminal” seems to tell us that power structure doesn’t care who fucks whom, but it also lets us clearly see that it’s always watching.

Rose, Gillian. Visual Methodologies, An Introduction (2nd edition). London, England: Sage Publications Ltd. 2007. Print.
Storey, John. Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, An Introduction (5th edition). Essex, England: Pearson Education Ltd. 2009. Print.

“Criminal.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 7 Feb, 2012. Web. 12 March, 2012.
“Fiona Apple.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 12 March, 2012. Web. 12 March, 2012.
“Fiona Apple-Criminal.” Mark Romanek. YouTube. 1997. Web. 12 March, 2012.
“Fiona Apple & Mark Romanek: Filming ‘Criminal’.” Mark Romanek. YouTube. 20 May, 2010. Web. 12 March, 2012.