Review: Isabella Trimbolion Lesley Chow

‘The Sensual World’

The precocious teenage girl looms large in pop music, a culture that has always been enamoured by stories of youthful ingenuity. Here’s one: Kate Bush, 13 years old and in love with her first boyfriend, a hospital janitor, writes the ballad ‘The Man with the Child in His Eyes’ on the family piano. She writes the lyrics in hot pink felt tip, drawing bubbles in the place of dots over the ‘i’s. Three years later, she records the song with Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, and it becomes her second single, her second surprise hit after ‘Wuthering Heights’.

The song is about adolescent infatuation, a profession of romantic idolatry and all of its accompanying insecurities. But it also contains the clarifying view of a teenager, who understands how girlhood hardens a person, looking askance as the men around her remain porous, their ability for wonder unspoiled. ‘A lot of men have got a child inside them, you know I think they are more or less just grown up kids,’ she told a television crew in 1979. ‘That’s what I was trying to say. That this man could communicate with a younger girl, because he’s on the same level.’ Fans have speculated that the lyrics are in reference to Josephine Leslie’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, a story about a woman who falls in love with the ghost of a sailor who haunts her house. But isn’t it also true that the experience of a crush – all-consuming, a presence felt even in absence  – is just like being haunted?

Hauntings – and evocations of all sorts – populate You’re History: The Twelve Strangest Women in Music, critic Lesley Chow’s exuberant dedication to the uncanny aural pleasures of female pop artists. The book’s awkward title masks what is a fascinating thesis, sketched out over several essays: music criticism, so dedicated to context, comprehension and close lyric reads, has neglected wordless delight, notions of pleasure buried under the deadening discourse of language and influence. ‘At a time when references tend to be clearly flagged and respectably eclectic, it is vital to acknowledge the imaginative leaps that an artist can make: out of time, out of milieu, out of mind,’ writes Chow. This approach has its own precedent. ‘To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world – in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings”,’ writes Susan Sontag in Against Interpretation. ‘In place of hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.’ Chow’s slender book is hotwired to erotics, tracing a song’s ‘hot’, ‘explosive’ and ‘immediate’ gratification: the vocal slips and ecstatic intonations that dissolve logic and leave the sublime.

The way I’ve begun this essay – with exposition and biography – Chow would say it breaks the spell, reveals nothing of the incantatory magic of the song, its bodily pleasures. While her essay on Bush focuses on the artist’s later, more bombastic hits, in the case of ‘The Man with the Child in His Eyes’ Chow might instead analyse the spectral ‘he’s here, he’s here’ that opens the song’s radio edit, as if Bush has spotted a ghost. Perhaps, she would cast her view on the video clip for the single. There, Bush, under the tutelage of influential British mime and dancer Lindsay Kemp, choreographs the body in lovesick flux, all swaying arms and sharp legs pointed skyward.

Bush is an outlier in You’re History. Chow’s subjects are rarely afforded Bush’s genius status; rather, their ubiquity and pop supremacy has diminished cultural appraisal. She has assembled female artists under the abstraction of ‘strange’, which sub-titles the book, but it would be more accurate to describe You’re History as a work of personal fascination, tracing what wounds, shocks and thrills Chow. Her affinity lies with sleaze, ugliness, contradictions and the cold, mechanical pop song. Perversity and plasticity, ageing and abjection are recalled repeatedly. She is drawn to those who tear a hole through the shiny membrane of pop, in order to release something squalid and slightly grotesque. In an industry that requires the commodification of self, Chow’s book looks at artists who denounce coherency, happy to display doubled, duplicitous selves.

In an early essay on Neneh Cherry’s debut record Raw Like Sushi (1989), Chow centres her analysis on ‘The New Generation’, a track from the album. It’s a song about birth and babies that quickly descends into a filthy ‘world of diapers and diseases’. Chow argues that this tale of breeding is made lurid through Cherry’s embodiment of multiple, opposed characters (black market baby wranglers, among others), her sampled, coarse laughter, zoological sounds, and the aggressive, propulsive enunciation of ‘push-push-push’.

Aside from a few interludes, this is the structure that settles over You’re History. Chow re-assesses the back-catalogue of an artist, popular by one metric or another – either a pop diva with colossal cultural domination (Taylor Swift, Rihanna) or less prominent artists who have scored some radio success (Shakespears Sister, Michelle Guervich) – and sculpts ideas on deviance from transgressions in timbre. It is in these sections where Chow’s sentences are at their most playful and provocative. Janet Jackson’s voice has often been criticised by critics as limited and lacking force, but Chow hears possibilities in her restraint. Her ‘asphyxiated gasp’ creates a new constellation in which to map desire and discipline. ‘She is one of the few artists who can make being armoured seem sexy, eroticizing both control and its loss,’ she writes. When an icy section of Jackson’s single ‘If’ is followed by a rare moment of sweetness, Chow describes a satisfaction like ‘biting through the frozen skin of a fruit – all the more rewarding following a drought.’

Chow’s mode of critique roots itself in the body, detailing the shapes of mouths and the movement of limbs that lead to those crushing notes. Of Sade’s ‘Smooth Operator’ she writes:

Coddling each ‘c’ she works up a savory thickness in her mouth – a sensation that dominates the track, As such, this is less a song about despair than a chance to luxuriate in splendour, to gargle words like ‘Key Largo’ in one’s throat.

But she also describes the bodily reaction of the listener, the way good pop music registers immediately, automatically in the body: the mouthing of lyrics that we may not even realise we’ve memorised.

Chow asserts that pop music is still seen as ‘foolishly infectious – the cultural equivalent of junk food’ – but this doesn’t account for the past decade of critical music writing that now covers pop music fervently and in-depth. While a necessary redress in many cases, it has also led to some grating, insufferable critical habits: over-intellectualisation, over-identification, a desire to atone for past published sins (Pitchfork constantly revisiting their ‘dismissive’ pop reviews a decade later, for instance). But the problem isn’t so much not taking pop music seriously as it is recalibrating critical language, creating new, expansive avenues of appraisal. Critics often conflate cliché with ‘unimaginative’ – but what about all the possibilities that can arise through arrangement and layering of clichés, or what can be said, or felt – with limited language? Chow’s book envisages a more sensual, somatic matrix, where pop artists are celebrated for using language as a means to an end. In a chapter on Taylor Swift, Chow breaks down the WASP-y, stereotypical images that permeate her songs, and describes how Swift’s cold, calculated delivery exposes ‘identity as a mask, building up the façade only to tear it down’.

I’ve always found it boring that music’s value is rarely comprehended outside of an artist’s career trajectory, the neatness of linearity. What about work that circles, loops, lacks resolution; the pleasurable patterns and repetition that emerges out of indolence, refusal, stubbornness? In an era when so many pop stars are stretched thin across genres, sounding like everything else and standing for basically nothing, it’s important to acknowledge the obstinate genius who spends a lifetime tunneling into their specific, small themes. Bush is one such artist. Her last album, 50 Words for Snow (2011), was concerned with desire that reaches for divinity, the imaginative realms of fables and folklore, the spectral space where earthy existence collides with the cosmic – which is to say, not much different from the fixations of her teenage years. By this metric, one can draw a rough line between Bush and Lana Del Rey, whose work over the past decade has repeatedly swooped America and its tarnished, gaudy emblems. What a gift, I think, to remain crouched in a tiny tide pool of your own making, and still find new ideas in the same old formations. 

Chow reveres flatness, fakeness and flippancy – praising Kylie Minogue’s ‘shiny cheap patina’ and Taylor Swift’s ‘mechanical flatness’ and ‘brittle repetition.’ While pop now gleefully leans into the rubbery, the plastic as its superlative expression, Chow casts her gaze at the establishment before this era, when it was more fraught to throw open the bonnet and expose the wires of corporate, cultural production; or to bare femininity and its wages. Auto-tune – rising to prominence in the late 90s – provided the perfect texture, offering a new landscape of sonic artifice, eagerly adopted by many of Chow’s subjects. 

But these artificial slippages do not always correlate to new freedoms, as Chow’s essays suggest. A crack in mass-produced culture can claim victims, expose our own complicity in commodification and exploitation. What about voices that bear the weight of industry, history? ‘Putting a door on the female mouth has been an important project of patriarchal culture from antiquity to present day,’ writes Anne Carson in her essay The Gender of Sound. ‘Its chief tactic is an ideological association of female sound with monstrosity, disorder and death.’ Despite Chow’s insistence on forgoing biography, when the body’s joyous, unbound power is recalled, it can be difficult to ignore its cruel limits. While reading the book, my thoughts ran to other pop vocalists whose pervasive, pleasurable work had come at their own expense: in 1978, Karen Carpenter – whose mellow, honeyed voice held the promise of white, virginal and square America – tried her hand at disco on a solo record. Her team recoiled at its faint sexuality, and (allegedly) accused her of trying to sound ‘like some Black chick’. The record was shelved, released several years after her tragic death. Decades later, another all-American teenager, Britney Spears, is rumoured to have been forced to sing in an unnaturally high register by her label, resulting in the breathy, babyish coo she’d known for. Online – as the struggle to free her from a conservatorship continues – fans paste together old videos, scouring the archive to locate a sound lost.

Another idea that remains relatively unturned: why these divergences cause pleasure. What Chow is so often drawing attention to, what she sees as pop’s pleasure centre, is camp – the decadence of Azealia Banks, the deviant sexuality that makes itself known through slurred and suggestive inflections. Instead of relying on the sterile, prosaic colloquiums that populate music criticism, Chow’s comparisons run to those beloved for butch-ness, opulence, and melodrama: Gertrude Stein, Diana Vreeland and Barbara Stanwyck. In many ways, You’re History is a project of camp: valorising the awkward, reveling the ribald and venerating the disregarded work of marginalised lives.

‘Experiencing the camp glow is a way of reversing one’s abjection, and, by witnessing the depletion of cultural monuments, experiencing one’s own power to fill degraded artifacts to the brim with meaning,’ writes Wayne Koestenbaum in his devotional study of opera and homosexuality The Queen’s Throat. ‘When we are experiencing the camp rush, the delight, the savor, we are making a private airlift of lost cultural matter, fragments held hostage by everyone else’s indifference.’

There is a moment when, describing the ghoulish carnality of Shakespears Sister, Chow gets close to these ideas: ‘When desire is expressed, it tends to be of the Joan Crawford kind, the love of a creepy mother figure.’ But this sentence doesn’t lead anywhere. Frequently in You’re History, Chow’s analysis feels cut short, reverting to platitudes or simplistic explanations to tie her ideas neatly in a bow, with ‘catchy’, ‘memorable’ and ‘strange’ standing in for an unexplored terrain of abjection and desire.

This is the case for one of the more original themes that snakes its way through You’re History: crones and hags in pop music. Made invisible by their age, with an interior world that is flattened, often neutered, pop girls recast their wretchedness, drawing upon their malice and mystery to splinter the boundaries of sexuality and desire in song. Chow charts the absence of crones and hags from the current pop landscape in pithy sentences that do not account for pop artists’ (such as TLC, Shakespears Sister) pull towards these personas in the past, nor decode their disappearance: ‘Now the wizened voice of experience has vanished from the music scene, at least as far as female stars are concerned. Today’s pop singers may be “fierce” but any hint of age or weariness is eliminated from the image,’ she writes.    

It is only when her attention falls to Nicki Minaj and her insistence on calling her rap rivals her ‘sons’ that we see Chow’s ideas expand and reach their fascinating potential: how motherhood is made a weapon, a way of wielding power that transcends traditional braggadocio or authority, domination steeped into the muck of biology and blood that is hard to suppress. The perfect put-down, that is.

‘In the Minaj universe, mothering is mastery: a specifically female form of one-upmanship,’ writes Chow. ‘Giving birth means she has ultimate bragging rights, demanding filial piety while threatening to withhold love, care and even legitimacy.’ It’s surprising that this criticism is in fact a lyrical one, in a book prioritising sound and voice over less immediate, and more literary charms. This analysis comes from one of the last essays in the book, a look at three ‘hybrid girls’ – Minaj, Rihanna and Azealia Banks – whose work avoids allegiance to any specific city or culture, instead cobbling together whatever cultural matter they stumble across to inform their work.

The chapter is called ‘All Those Anomalies’. ‘Anomaly’ is a word Chow repeatedly comes back to in You’re History. ‘What these artists have in common is that they are all anomalies: pioneers in the making, whose output has been too strange to fully digest,’ she writes in the book’s introduction. But this becomes a limiting parameter. With a fervent dedication to treating her subjects as singular, anomalous, or ‘strange’, she fails to see the threads that might bind these artists together. The subject of slippages and sublimity in pop call for a similar critical approach; one that conjures more imaginative, more curious arrangement – that might look beyond the ‘exceptional genius’ persona codified by music critics long ago. Instead, Chow’s subjects remain cordoned off from one another by the book’s conservative essay structure. Even in the ‘anomalies’ essay, her three pop stars are assessed separately, isolated by sub-headings.

More than any other genre, pop’s delight – and power – is best felt collectively: in bars, clubs, cars, concerts, weddings. For all Chow’s emphasis on the individual innovator, what interested me were the brief instances she describes of genius forged in packs: Tina Weymouth and her sisters’ girlish, ebullient vocals on Tom Tom Club’s ‘Genius of Love’, featuring the secret, mythical language one of them had created in childhood; how the debut album of TLC has the air of noisy, crass schoolgirls egging each other on. All these women breaking codes and bending language to their will; concocting sonic pleasures in solidarity.

Published November 4, 2021
Part of Emerging Critics 2021: Essays by the 2021 CA-SRB Emerging Critics cohort: Gemma Betros, Sarah-Jane Burton, Dan Dixon, Ursula Robinson-Shaw, Isabella Trimboli. Our Emerging Critics Fellowship Program is generously funded by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund. All Emerging Critics 2021 essays →
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