Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The beginning of your last breath

Its funny how things sometimes fall into place and themes create themselves from the chance encounters of circumstance and situation. Only the other day I was belatedly listening for first time to Omar S’s album “It can be done, but only I can do it” at work. The appropriately titled track “Look Hear Watch” features an extended porn sample of a noisy woman making love to a silent man, quite a strange thing to have in one’s ears as you look around at your work colleagues. One assumes it is a porn sample, but one never knows, especially when coming (sic) under the umbrella of such a confident title. Is it actually Omar rubbing uglies with a fan in the studio while the mikes are running for example?

A day later and at breakfast I am reading a piece from Drew Daniel of Matmos in the Wire about sexual identity and music. By coincidence the same night I put in a DVD to watch a film called “Shortbus” which my friend has taped for me off the television in Australia (only SBS would put on a film like that). I had never heard of the film and there was no cover or information except for the year 2006 written on the disc. Needless to say after the incredibly controversial opening scene I was wondering exactly what he had sent me.



Shortbus - Uncensored Trailer
Get More: Shortbus - Uncensored Trailer

John Cameron Mitchell's “Shortbus” is most certainly one of the most ground breaking films of recent times. The frank portrayal of sexual identity issues scythes down in one blow all the decades of miserable Hollywood heterosexual romantic comedies, bad and/or censored sex and pantomime characters, especially the portrayal of gays. One reason for authenticity is the use of improvising workshops to cast the film and develop the characters, while the plot itself was also devised from scenarios and roleplaying situations arising during the workshops as well as a mingling of the real fantasies of the actors. When they step up in front of the camera and their characters begin engaging in real unsimulated sex, what they achieve goes beyond simply representing a melting pot of sexual possibility or a voyeuristic tapestry. The film transmits a genuine intimacy that exposes the frailty that is often behind sexual activity and questions of being. The cast and crew can also not avoid having a dig at the political situation that upholds the opposite side of their argument. The film was made during the Bush years and in one of the films best throw away lines, Justin Bond, playing himself and the transsexual head of the “Shortbus” avante garde sex club says “It’s like the 60s, but with less hope”. The references to Ground Zero also help to capture the certain despondency and uncertainty of post 9/11 life. But the film’s most poignant political statement must be the scene depicting an unsimulated homosexual threesome in which the characters start to sing to break the tension and, while hesitant at first, their voices soon give full cry to the “Star Spangled Banner”. Surely one of the most heretical scenes in cinema history.

There is a fascinating background story to the film that can be found elsewhere on the internet, but there are plenty of musical reference points as well. The three main artists of the soundtrack are/were all New York based. Yo La Tengo get the main billing and the inclusion of “Night falls on Hoboken” from the album “Nothing turned itself inside out” is a great choice since it by name evokes the fringe of New York, where Hoboken is located on the New Jersey shoreline, and thus the fringe of our supposedly well defined society where the characters dwell. The songs melancholia beautifully captures the doubt and searching of the protagonists.

Australian ex-pat Scott Matthew is perhaps the main contributor, appearing in the film and contributing several original songs. His folk tactics combined with his soft yet gravelly voice once more work brilliantly within the context of the movie to return the action inwards.

Animal Collective almost steal the musical part of the show at the final credits when the track “Winter’s love” lifts the spirits once more.

The proceeding final scenes of the film are dominated by Justin Bond and the Hungry Marching Band who together  put in their best effort to make a Spiritualized-esque redemption song that ascends from the mournfully keening violin and fatalistic lyrics to become a bombastic celebration of life and “la petite morte”

There are plenty of cameos in the film, one of the most noticeable being the appearance of Le Tigre’s JD Samson. Samson has been a consistent and important voice in gender politics issues for over a decade as part of Le Tigre, but also through various side projects and collaborations, including work in Peaches’ band as well as co-producing Christina Aguilera’s song “My girls”. Visually iconic for sporting a natural moustache, Samson’s inclusion in the film is a simple touch that compounds the film’s notions of sexual community and expansiveness and the importance of finding your individual mode of expressing self. Perhaps not surprisingly, Le Tigre even name-drop Justin Bond at the end of their track “Hot topic” which is something like a sexual identity politics version of LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing my edge”.

Musicians and artists also played an important role in supporting the film once the conservative backlash began against it. In particular, Canadian radio host Sook-Yon Lee needed the intervention of REM’s Michael Stipe, Moby and Yoko Ono, amongst others, to keep her job after the explicit nature of the film became apparent.

“Short bus” is film reclaiming sex and the orgasm for itself and for the right to express it as art and emotion. Drew Daniel’s piece in the Wire also looks somewhat long-windedly at the same theme. The short story is his entering a New York gay club for a night of debauchery with the “muscle-and-amphetamine set”. On entering, his posse are confronted with a soundtrack of Lil Louis’s track “French kiss” originally released on Diamond Records back in 1989 and famous for its breakdown featuring a female orgasm. Voyeurs should head to around the 5:00 mark if you don’t like foreplay.

Despite being something of an iconic gay track, Daniel’s is rightly somewhat confused and upset by the presence of the female orgasm, especially given his surroundings of Tom-of-Finland-like muscly gay men and then opens the question of sexual identity and music. His prose is a little leaden, but his point is a good one: how and why do we become bound by certain sounds and styles? When do you start hearing the world, as he puts it, or in other words hearing the sound of your sexual identity?

I remember when I was finishing my thesis in Perth many years ago, I was at home writing and living next to a gay couple who had just moved in for a short stay at least. One day in particular I was trying to write in the early to mid morning when they suddenly cranked the stereo and started blaring out a trance version of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time after time” (which one, I don’t know: the web is full of happy hardcore, Christian punk and other versions that confounds my memory).

They played it again and again as they waited for someone outside, just in front of my door a metre or so from where I sat, smoking and dangerously throwing the unextinguished butts on the roof of the building. At the time I equated this kind of trance sound, particularly hyper covers of kitsch commercial tracks, with a gay sound, probably to the chagrin of many homosexuals. One of the last conversations with them was outside, smoking, I mentioned a club or a place in passing and just happened to say something like “It was ok, but a bit gay”. In this case I did not mean to be derogatory, but merely to express an admission of style reminiscent of this track. I never saw them again by design or not, but the lesson was learned. “Gay” is thus at times a loaded word, necessary to evoke images of a particular style, or perhaps more appropriately, cliché, but also potentially inflammatory ion the same way as racist terms. The point is then to say that why should I associate a particular sound or style with gays or indeed my own sexuality? Perhaps one exists on a superficial level, but as Daniel argues, perhaps we can step away from that and not fall so easily in the shadow. The point is the same for gays. Daniel cynically writes “They’re playing our song” in reference to Lil Louis, but it didn’t feel like that to Daniel and his friends in the moment. What then is the sound of the world and the sound of sexuality as presented to us in music?

Unsurprisingly, sex in sound is like “Shortbus” and is as diverse as sex is for people albeit with the usual cultural bias of heterosexuality and of course the clichéd concentration of sexual energy in women in particular as objects of lust and prisms of pleasure.

Daniel in his article lists several tracks that include female orgasms including Donna Summer’s mythical “Love to love you baby”, apparently recorded in “authentic” circumstances in much the same way as “Shortbus”. The backing music with its slow disco groove and wah-wah grind is parodied many times in porn soundtracks of the era.

And who can forget Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin’s immortal and less challenging “Je t’aime… moi non plus” once banned by many media outlets, but now so iconic and common place as to almost (almost) lose its afterglow.

Prince not surprisingly also contributes with “Lady cab driver” amongst his many other dirty lyrics.

Detroit’s MC5 do not include sex samples directly in their music (would have been quite a feat even for 1969), but perhaps go closest to the heart of heterosexual sex music and achieve a genuine sonic of orgasm in their appropriately named “Come together”.

“Oh, God, it's getting closer
Oh and when it gets closer
Oh, God it's so close now
God it's so close, yes yes yes
Yes yes yes yes yes, yes yes yes, oh

Build to a rising
Build to a gathering, build to a quaking
Build to eruption, build to a peak
And fall gasping over
Together, yes, together in the darkness”

As well as attempts at genuine arousal, sex also gets rather perveted on many occasions on one level as extension of fantasy and on another as critique of society that could in turn criticise a fantasy as being pervese. As well as Omar S’s extended porn sample, other examples from Daniel include Throbbing Gristle’s “Catholic Sex”, a group who always had a closer relationship to most to sex (if you need more evidence check the previous issue of the Wire with some of the remarks from Cosey Fanni Tutti).

Venetian Snares and Hecate’s “Nymphomatriarch” shows a fractured and rather hostile and remote side to the sound of an orgasm from a producer who also has tracks like “Mutant cunt sniffer” which leaves little to be desired.

Hip hop legend Dr Octagon clearly gets the wrong idea with his track “Visit to the gynaecologist” which tries to sexualise a visit to the doctor or perhaps manipulating the power relationship of doctor-patient into the mundane “nurse” fantasy.

There are still plenty of questions though. Why does Omar S need to keep the porn sample going so long? Why cannot we hear a male orgasm sound instead of a woman? Is sex in music just bragging or does it really serve another function? How do we react on an instinctual or animal level to the sound of sex in a communal place and how are we manipulated by the sound of sex? Should we do more to install a more wide ranging pan-sexual sex soundscape in our music to avoid the limitations of simple heterosexual programming?

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