06 August 2010

Not The Barnet of a Straight-Talking Man

Interesting piece by Anwyn Crawford on Nick Cave, and why he's a woman-hating arsewart.

There are two main thrusts to her arguments, both of which are correct. The first is that Cave is a pretentious helmet. The second is more sophisticated and much more informative:
‘She’s wearing those blue stockings, I bet,’ Cave muses, an intriguing detail. She’s a smart woman, self-reliant; she doesn’t need him nearly as much as he needs her. ‘This desire to possess her is a wound,’ Cave croons, and then his voice turns hard, ‘and it’s nagging at me like a shrew.’ So the desire for a woman he can’t possess nags at him like the ultimate possessive, scolding woman. And now Cave arrives at the formulation of a paradox that has fuelled his entire oeuvre with increasingly tedious and puerile results: ‘But I know that to possess her is therefore not to desire her/ So that lil’ girl will just have to go!’ He shouts out his conclusion and the song shifts into a hideous death rattle, with Cave’s yelps sounding as strangled as his poor victim’s. He’s probably garrotting her with the stockings.
for Cave, as for his predecessors, women are both far better and far worse creatures than he – but whether they’re saints or sluts he has to kill them.
Basically, Nick Cave's songs display a rather, er, eccentric attitude to fanciable women, where both they and the desire to possess them are at once hated and fetishised. Fanciable women in Nick Caves songs also tend not to make it to the end of the song. Disturbing and intriguing, and probably exactly what the boy was after.

Cath Elliot has similar reservations about Eminem and Rihanna's new one:
My biggest issue with it is that so much of this “story” is told from the perpetrator’s point of view. We get to hear how awful being such a violent abusive bastard is for him, and how ashamed it makes him feel to be such a vile, despicable human being. And what with me being such a man-hating femnazi and all, I have to say my reaction to that level of self-pitying whining from a perpetrator of domestic violence is always going to be “Well boo fucking hoo mate, now shut the fuck up and let’s hear how the victim feels.” The problem here of course is that we don’t. We only get to hear, very briefly in the chorus, how much she enjoys it.
It's odd, while I'm not exactly pro-domestic abuse, I'd say the exact opposite: what the quintessential victim feels - pain, fear, anger, hate and so on - isn't that difficult to work out. I'm far more interested in thought-processes I can't identify with: people who abuse loved ones, and people who enjoy being abused by their loved ones. It's easy to think of yourself as the victim - questioning your own thought processes lest you become the perpetrator is a lot harder, a lot more socially necessary, and makes for much more exciting art.

Both writers are confusing two different debates: one feminist and one literary. "Should anti-heroes be given first-person narratives?" is a valid question if an old one, but not the same as "is it ever ok to punch your wife in the face?" and not one Cath Elliot addresses. It's also telling that she doesn't include any of Eminem's actual lyrics in her analysis. Anwyn Crawford does address, indirectly, the idea that it might not be Nick Cave but his characters speaking, but largely as a straw man and without any analysis of how this irony might work.
Ah, but Cave’s defenders like to point out, you are forgetting about the man’s exquisite humour! His delicately honed irony! He is a moral satirist without peer! (The subtext to this defence often being, ‘Lighten up, bitch!’). The notion that Cave is being ‘ironic’ has been used to excuse many of his worst indulgences, up to and including his pimp’s moustache. It is simply not true. As anyone who bothers to look up Cave’s press history will discover, the man takes himself seriously, very seriously indeed, and will threaten to break the legs – or worse – of any writer who dares suggest that his work is not nearly as good as he himself is convinced that it is.
The lighten-up-bitch brigade always assume that "it's just a joke" or "it's still a good song" somehow make it mean the opposite, or that "it's ironic" means disgusting attitudes can't be expressed through irony. Unfortunately, when the bitches they want to lighten up reply, they tend to mirror this, which is sad, as, in contrast, they're usually not complete idiots. Apart from the irrelevant pimpiness of the moustache, Crawford mistakenly assumes three things: firstly, that Cave doesn't pretend to take himself ludicrously seriously as part of yet another persona, secondly, that if he does take himself that seriously that it's not as a humourist and user of irony, and lastly that Cave's use of irony is humorous. It's not. It's gothic. Scroll up and look at his hair. It's gothic. End of discussion. Gothic.

Just like offensive humour, the gothic is a way of exploring and breaking taboos under controlled conditions. If we assume anything Cave says/sings/writes is him peering into a disturbed mind, it works the same as laughter: it says "this is not my opinion, but an abhorrent one I am pretending is my own for purposes of entertainment". Dark humour is the best example of this, but it works so well because both dark and humour rely on the same mechanism: looking closely at stuff you know to be wrong. Whether the gothic counts as proper irony is fairly irrelevant: it works the same way and is powerful in the same way. Crawford hits on this when she says:
I can still listen to The Birthday Party and find Cave’s sordid fantasies of woman-pie, kewpie dolls and six-inch gold blades stuck ‘in the head of a girl’ exhilarating and disturbing in equal measure.
I can't say for sure, but I imagine that, like most fans, if she found them less disturbing, she'd also find them a lot less exhilarating. There's an expectation of Nick Cave and, in this context at least, Eminem, to sing points of view you wouldn't agree with. Audiences come knowing not to agree with anything said, and if they do, to be unsettled by it.

What Nick Cave's defenders argue is "irony" is even simpler. Nick Cave is saying things that aren't his personal point of view, to an audience who know and expect exactly that. Writers do it all the time. Speaking in the persona of a violent misogynist doesn't make him or Eminem anti-woman, any more than writing Watership Down made Richard Adams a rabbit. This may not be healthy. It may be crass and tedious. It may still be misogynistic as fuck. But the gothic interior monologue is, to all intents and purposes, ironic, and irony is backwards. Nick Cave says things by saying the opposite. Eminem is clearly doing some kind of dialogue. To be fair, I think there probably are a lot of genuinely fucked-up attitudes to women in Nick Cave's music, and the less said about Eminem the better, but this demands a lot more analysis than "he sings about killing them". For fuck's sake, Murder Ballads averages 6.7 deaths per song. Misogynist or not, he's not a man who sings about things he finds pleasant or ethical. So let's instead look at what kind of women and treatment of women he finds unpleasant and unethical. He might still turn out to be a prick. There's still time.

Edit: The heartbreaking upshot of this kind of thinking is that PJ Harvey might actually be sane. I'm going to try and pretend that's not true though.

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