Love to Hate it

I think I hate stand-up. Almost every time I am exposed to it, I need to immediately engage in discussion to purge my vexations. Occasionally, I do this with my partner who loves stand-up as much as I hate it. You can just imagine how trivial these conversations can get. Anyways, I’ve been trying to figure out how to ease my hostility towards stand-up into this post since so much of my disdain is intuitive. So, I’ll try my best to articulate it.

The stand-up community is similar to the video game community—pervaded with racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and misogyny. Much of this destructive sentiment has been preserved by the mostly white and cisgender men who have preoccupied the sphere for so long (I’m not even going to name them). There has been a shift in the stand-up medium, less driven by the performativity of representation, and more involved with the reclamation of space by BIPOC and the LGBTQ+ community. But, like Hollywood, stand-up embedded in pop culture (SNL, Comedy Central, etc…) is still largely problematic. Many stand-up comics have pushed ethical boundaries to extract a reaction from their audience. So much depends on that receptive end and therefore, so much is neglected at its expense. This is not to say that stand-up is alone in its need to satisfy an audience. All art forms rely on an audience. However, there is more distance between the artist and the audience in writing than there is in stand-up. Writers do not necessarily have to be as preoccupied with the audience or prioritize the audience as much as a comic would. There is more urgency in stand-up since feedback is immediate. 

It’s worth considering what the medium demands in exchange for laughs. What is compromised for “universality”? What autobiographical authenticities does the comic sacrifice? Hassan Minhaj’s Homecoming King has some great moments of vulnerability but was bogged down by cheesy cultural references. As much as I want to be affected by Minhaj’s special, I could only appreciate it. The twists (of vulnerability) as well as the turns (for validation) felt inconsistent and resembled falling in and out of sleep.

Tig focuses on Tig Notaro’s life rather than just her status as a stand-up comic. That is not to say comedy is not important, rather, it is repurposed as the source of relief/catharsis. I think being shown the context rather than having it verbally set-up, is more effective in accentuating the humor as well as the tenderness of Tig’s stand-up sets. Separately, I found myself laughing the hardest during the impromptu exchanges between Tig and others in her everyday life, i.e. Tig’s text messages with Stephanie, or Tig’s face of disbelief when she gets her first painful hormone shot after the nurse told her that it wouldn’t hurt. Many of us can recount the times our stomachs ached happily from laughter, and how that involved an interaction with a loved one. It is incredibly difficult to replicate that outside of the moment. Laughter is a shared experience, but above all else, it involves a shared history and an intimacy that might not be afforded by stand-up. In this way, stand-up is an exchange between a host and a guest rather than between a friend and a friend.

The Fragments that Remain

There are many things I wanted to consider in our readings this week, so please forgive me if this post undergoes many sporadic deviations.

Almost all of the readings converged on crafting autobiographies in conversation with the supernatural. It’s interesting how autobiography, especially elegy, often finds itself in the realm of the occult, as if locating truth transposes our reality. In this way, the autobiographical genre seems to rely on a system of belief. Amanda Yates Garcia’s “In Order to Write, I Had to Break a Family Curse” is more overtly influenced by the occult since the article focuses on the affinities between witchcraft and the craft of writing. Maia’s “Whose Story?: The Ethics of Writing Memoir” is less conspicuous, but shares the process of “transmutation” with Garcia’s piece. Although Jason Tougaw’s “Memory and Memoir” doesn’t use any supernatural terminology, there is a focus on transmutation as discussed in Garcia and Maia’s pieces. This transmutative process, as Tougaw writes, is the reconstruction of memory rather than the replication of it. It seems that all autobiography is transmutative since memory is never stagnant. Rather, they are sedimentary fragments that are always transforming through the dulling or sharpening of time.

Another shared term in these discussions of autobiography is “invocation.” I think that all writers are subjected to this process whether it’s to the Muses or any of our best-loved influences. It was a form of unsuspecting but welcoming invocation to read, watch, and listen to writers invoke their past, their doubts, and their loved ones.

The ethics of autobiography involves the pacts (in no particular order) writers make with themselves, with the genre, with their subjects, and with the readers. Ethics are never as binary as most would reduce them to be. Listening to both Phillip Gourevitch & Nicholas Christopher’s “The Ethics of Memoir Writing” followed by Ariel Francisco and Jason Tougaw’s discussion in “Writing about Other People” motivated me to think of how we can contextualize the complicated ethics involving the subjects in autobiography. I was compelled to try recontextualizing this process and the anxiety involved when writing about others, especially loved ones:

After decades of lost time, I finally secured a jar of Lao Gan Ma to substantiate the fine threads of Sōmen. Eager for a taste, I swiveled the red lid only for it to launch into unreasonable heights. I felt time thicken into an opportunity to catch the jar, but my reflexes had been at leisure for too long. The excess of time was spent in disbelief of myself, my strength wrongfully distributed, the stubborn jar, and the inevitability of gravity. Disbelief gnawed into worry for my loved ones’ unsuspecting feet. Some noise escaped me as the fractures of that beautifully broad and oil-tainted glass skidded on the kitchen floor. 

I picked up the larger fragments first, laying one on top of another and mooring the splintered edges with my thumb. Then came the dustpan towing a stray apple peel for the pieces too small to collect. Lastly, with conviction, I ran the vacuum over the faint wisps, the most dangerous remnants of all. 

The kitchen was restored to a better form. Something caught my eye, a reflection I hoped. It could be one of the wandering wisps that I couldn’t contain. Suddenly, the floor didn’t feel spotless. It didn’t feel safe.

The Spectacle of Old Age in Moses Sumney’s “Me in 20 Years”

Many of us are familiar with the trope of the aging artist lodged in time, yearning for bygones. The gravity involving the reproduction of this trope is obscured by cultural branding—or rather, the cultural conditioning that augments youth and diminishes old age to an incomprehensible stigma. This infatuation with youth and the ageism involved is prevalent in all modes of artistry. So much of our culture attempts to barricade against time with anti-aging sentiment primarily through commercialization. Moses Sumney’s autobiographical song, “Me In 20 Years,” engages with this cultural paradox by depicting it as so acutely internalized that it becomes a conversation with self. Sumney broods with his signature falsetto range in concern of “old age,” addressing himself (both present and future) with pronouns like I, me, and you. In the music video, Sumney wears exaggerated makeup and prosthetics to manifest this older self. Twenty years from now, Sumney would only be around fifty years old, and obviously not as dilapidated as he is presenting himself. This draws attention to the caricature surrounding this stigma—in this case, a grey-bearded man nudging yet another decaying tooth out of his mouth. Sumney materializes this internalization to mirror the absurdities of this stigma, and cautions its fictive nature.

Much of what Sumney offers in “Me in 20 Years” is a good fit for theoretical analysis. This is especially relevant when Sumney performs what Louis Althusser identifies in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” as “interpellation” with, “Hey, after all these years” and “Hey me in 20 years.” Interpellation involves an individual’s internalizing of a social convention through the depiction of said individual being “hailed” by a representative figure of society. Sumney engages with this internalization directly by only addressing himself, flipping the societal narrative that requires some societal figure/symbol to perform this “hailing.” In other words, Sumney takes control of this narrative. The dreary climax of “Me in 20 Years” both lyrically and visually confronts the inefficacy of society’s infatuation with youth and its superficialities. Sumney stresses the superficiality of this anti-aging stigma in the following lines: “Do you still hoard souvenirs / And make them mirrors / Of sentimental veneer?” By using the verb “hoard,” Sumney calls attention to the unhealthy obsession with youth as alluded to with the negative connotation of the word. With “sentimental veneer” he is exposing this recollection of youth as decorative or surface-level. During this moment in the music video, older Sumney embraces a sweater he pulls from his wardrobe. He finds himself in the mirror, young again, then continues to dance with the sweater as if it were alive. In the music video, the color of the sweater is a non-vibrant and unimpressive grey. Yet, he dances with it intimately. This is similar to what Karl Marx identified as “commodity fetishism” or the capitalist infatuation with objects so much so that the owner perceives it as alive. Perhaps, one of the most intriguing metaphors Sumney uses involves the term, “cavity,”  which produces visceral imagery of decay. This is especially so since the cavity also shares space with the image of “rotten milk.” Sumney presents this entity, or rather this state as “your imprint” or “pit,” but soon elaborates it to a cavity. In the music video, on the right side of his bed,  this cavity is a cushioned void that heaves as if it is breathing. The exaggerated, almost fantastical representation of the cavity points to the fictive stigma that surrounds older age. Seemingly, the cavity is the remains of what was, and perhaps, what is left; or rather, who Sumney was in his youth and what is left of him in this imagined older age. He laments this future loss by substituting intimacy with a lonely self-regard, “And nothing left to hold but pride.” By using the word, “pride,” Sumney calls attention to the abstract nature of this cavity, i.e., this stigma. In the end, Sumney imagines himself merging with “the cavity he feared.” In the music video, rather than show him being forced into this cavity,  he willingly crawls into it. This image suggests that there is a sense of choice—or could this be a reaffirmation of that intense internalization that Sumney inevitably gives in to?

It is worth considering how the function of “replay” in pop songs complicates the genre as a medium for autobiography. A song is steered into the popular realm as a result of its prevalence and how many “listens” it achieves. The result of this may be the loss of a song’s meaning. This is similar to the anomaly that is semantic satiation or when a word loses its “meaning” when recited again and again. Perhaps, the length of songs compared to more detailed mediums like books or films, contribute to this limitation. Music, especially pop music is easy to digest, so much so, its content may escape us from time to time. Any truth or autobiographical complexities in music could easily dissolve into white-noise, which begs the question: Could there be a pact that holds the audience accountable in analyzing their favorite song on repeat?

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I’m in Love with Hanif Abdurraqib’s Love Letter

In Go Ahead in the Rain, Hanif Abdurraqib extends music beyond its domain, and calls attention to its affinities with language emphasizing its collective/collaborative functions. Abdurraqib ties his coming-of-age narrative with the development of rap group, A Tribe Called Quest. The reader is thus granted two timelines that are similar to the exchange between a lover and beloved. It would be reductive to assume that beyond the author/reader dynamic, there is no receiving end and if there is, it is a type of unrequited love. I would argue that Tribe initiates this love (letter) through their music. Go Ahead in the Rain is Abdurraqib’s response to that love (letter). Abdurraqib’s timeline of Tribe’s music is brimming with love; so much so that the reader, even if they are not familiar with Tribe, falls in love with the exchange. Abdurraqib lyrically nurtures research so that intimacy swells in the intervals between audience and artist; between him and Tribe, or between him and us. One of the overarching exchanges is between the reader and how Abdurraqib presents his research on Black history, especially in his use of intertextuality. Abdurraqib consolidates personal and historical anecdotes while adjusting his proverbial lens so that the more overlooked elements are heightened in comparison to the grander picture. Moreover, Abdurraqib’s use of intertextuality operates as a sampling of collective voices inseparable from the past and present despite the medium they may hold or have held. 

Go Ahead in the Rain is very much a text that is living and breathing. There is movement in the form as well as the narrative. One of the many breathtaking moments is in the latter half of this text, where there is a shift to elegy. The title of chapter eight, “Lament,” speaks for itself. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, lament derives from the Latin word, lamenta meaning weeping. However, this chapter is not only a declaration of grief, but love for Phife and his legacy. This is evident in Abdurraqib’s anaphora of  “I love…” (129-130). On a different note, Abdurraqib edges the process of apotheosizing Phife’s legacy with personal resistance against public opinion: “I paid $30 for the old copy of Ventilation that I found in that New York CD shop, because I didn’t know if I’d ever find a copy again, and I refuse to let that album die” (129). In a similar way that Tribe’s music initiates a conversation with their listeners, Abdurraqib does the very same with his readers: “Here’s another one that I know you know already, Phife, but I am going to talk to you like you maybe don’t remember, because some people out there don’t, and I’m talking to them as much as I’m talking to you, anyway” (129). Initially, I read this as an acknowledgment of the distance between the addresser and addressee. However, throughout the text, Abdurraqib has consistently stressed the lineage of the individual to the collective as if the two function interchangeably. 

In chapter ten or “Family Business,” Abdurraqib elevates his kinship by addressing Phife, for the first and last time, by his birth name, Malik. As much as there is love in this chapter, the grief is unmistakable. At the end of the chapter, where Abdurraqib abides by the elegiac convention of memorialization in the anaphora of “We will remember you…” (169). In this chapter, Abdurraqib juxtaposes loss with sweetness. Sugar in the form of Kool-Aid and candy becomes immortalized as a form of inheritance. Abdurraqib writes, “… and they will say that you died because you loved sugar too much to stop letting it kill you, but some things we cling to because we come from people who clung to them” (166). Sugar becomes a relic for lamenting, serving as a consoling substitute. Abdurraqib ends this segment in almost perpetual bliss replacing past and future with an everlasting present… 

Abdurraqib writes beautifully, “Today there is a sweetness on my tongue that feels as though it may never leave” (167).