What a banal day September 11, 2002 turned out to be. After all that premature-ejaculatory
televised replay of 9-11 over the previous two weeks, pfffht. There should have been
a burst of energy --but the date simply came and went. And come 9-12-02, 9-11 began
to seem so, well, 9-10.
Like, after a full year of Ground Zero being my lover, I was handed a "Dear John"
letter. Leaving me in confusion. What now? What next? Who next?
At least our earlier WTC installments were now on-line, for real, as part of
www.omnitecturalforum.com --but whatever their merit, they were too little, too late.
Plowed under by the melee of WTC/9-11 tributes, by everyone doing their mawkish bit.
By the time Omni "went public", the public was terminally jaded by any unsolicited
WTC utterances. They wanted to turn off their TV sets and opt out. Somehow, just
as I could never forget Frampton, I couldn't opt out of the pornographic draw of
the regurgitated 9-11 footage. Leading up to the anniversary, it still transfixed.
It even subverted its own sentimentally regurgitated milieu. Keep in mind that this
buildup-to-anniversary reprise post-dated my writings. Thus, a rarefied situation;
just as my writings were an extension of 9-11, 9-11 revisited now became an extension
of my own writings. A self-generated filter for continued observation and beholding.
And a stunning affirmation, at that.
By itself, in real time. In all this gesticulation over Ground Zero loverdom,
I haven't purchased one WTC/September 11 book, whether coffeetable or Chomsky
(and Chomsky might as well be coffeetable). Nor have I any video footage.
Why this hardcopy balderdash? The love's but tantric, anyhow. Catch it as
it comes along; then let it fly free...
But if 9-11-02 is "Dear John", maybe, finally, it flew a little too free. Or not.
For the memory, and reverence, still lives. The lover remains a muse. Maybe more
than a muse.
My reflections were always imperfect. In the beginning, I referred to the Pentagon… but
never to Shanksville PA, and a shame, for Pennsylvania's nook'n'cranny heartland's always
been garden-of-earthly-delights meaningful to me. (It could have been more Albert
Ayler-squawk cosmic, had the plane crashed 25-30 miles to the west into FLW's Fallingwater.)
Other concept-extensions were untapped, such as…
WHEN THE 1 LIBERTY BREAKS
The ultimate Venturian "duck" of the 1970s: a 54-storey amplifier.
It even goes to eleven... nine-eleven...
And in my belated musings over the Ice Bucket at 101 Barclay, I should have
latched onto its status as Ground Zero's icon of architectural "electroclash",
chronologically, aesthetically. Design akin to the bleeps and bloops of New Order's
"Blue Monday"; a great counterpoint to 1 Liberty Plaza's Led Zep...
In the really outrageously tasteless category, how about this idea: 35
airplanes flying into Co-Op City! (And its sublimely Dubyah-era replacement:
the return of Freedomland!)
And finally, a cute little pet name for Ground Zero, particularly in its
September-to-December sublime-anarchy period: "Wurtzel's Pubes".
There came a point, though, where Ground Zero floated off into ennui-land, a
protracted point that became definitive once the wax job on Wurtzel's Pubes
was complete in May 2002. And all tabled or mooted or conceptualized plans
for the site smacked of overweening, and likely preordained, anticlimax --the
fantasies of Maxie Protech and Herbie Muschamp and the Port Authority's Killer
B's alike. But over those closing months of 2001, magical promise reigned.
No kidding; New York was really the best kind of "delirious". The fantasyland
centre of the universe. Urban nirvana, the best it ever was. The stratosphere.
Walt Whitman woozyland. And upon my visit, I caught the stratosphere's tail end.
But as the calendar turned into 2002, NYC and all of America became a schmuck
once again, a blubbering schmuck, blubbering more obnoxiously, more embarrassingly,
than ever. A schmuck beneath our very fingertips.
A tragedy, too --the schmuckiness, or reaction to said schmuckiness, undermined the
promise. And strangely, to take the squinty-eyed view, where are the parallels
to the Omnitone re the WTC? Among all the jillions upon googolplexillions of
laments and reflections on the havoc, none could quite surf the havoc. No
realm could treat the WTC with the same kind of goofy reverence as Len lent
the Andrea True sample on "Steal My Sunshine"…except Omni. Let alone take
that kind of reflection and explode it. The revolution in archi-urban
observation has thus far not happened… unless it's all in the hands of Omni,
in which case I'm embarrassed at our having to bear the burden. (Keep the
Andrea True thing in mind. Post-9-11, goofy reverence towards the iconic
WTC might have the don't-go-there clamminess of a childhood perusing
Penthouse Forum. Ah, those closeted, guilt-ridden 70s.)
Still, it may be the last stand at preventing "9-11ing" from going the way
of the hula hoop, the Nehru jacket, Peter Frampton, or name-your-fad.
And it's the vulgarized pseudo-image of such jaded obsolescence that's
camoflauged the real, shall we say, horrendous historical majesty of what
took place. The realm of the arts and aesthetics remains supremely
stunted --England's art-world cow-splitting enfant terrible of the 90s,
Damien Hirst, caused a belated post-anniversary ruckus through press observations
which were lackluster, even from a shock-value standpoint, next to Stockhausen's
a year earlier, or even Liz Wurtzel's half a year earlier. Just banally labelling
it as akin to an artwork without delving deeply into the hows and wherefores of its
aesthetic or of all aesthetic, including the aesthetic of our soul --if this is the
greatest artwork ever, it's an artwork just begging for deconstruction after
deconstruction after reassemblage after deconstruction in a way that art-obsessives
and scholarly wonks do --is a sign of shallowness. A feigned pose, sans sublime horror.
Lip service to the aesthetic --but just lip service. Damien Hirst sure ain't no Duchamp.
Dali, maybe, but not Duchamp.
But there's also a sober opposite pole that has its own inadvertent "amorality",
and I discovered this upon running into an old survey-course prof who was looking
for Ground Zero images to correlate with the Piranesian sublime. Makes sense,
and neatly, comprehensibly ties the beginnings of Modernism into a modern-world
event we all know all too well --but because of the rawness of this particular mass
psychic wound, something remained unaddressed, and perhaps unaddressable except
by the Dead-Poets-Society maverick-inspirational. Yet, how can one stick a head
in the sand and ignore such obvious immediacy? Anyway, an unexpected mutual
cheapening effect might have resulted. Ground Zero sure had immediacy, but so
would seeing your father gun down your mother. Perhaps an expert sublimator
like myself could pull it off; but that's exceptional. I'm wondering how many
students in attendance would have either whimpered, or rolled their eyes, or
some combination thereof. Yet at the same time, even that kind of reflex would
have paradoxically affirmed the aesthetic-event-of-our-timeness of it all.
Art History survey courses staggering beneath the tableau of present-day
blood and entrail...
Still, there could have been a point, though whether said professor grasped it or
felt the gumption or loosened restraint to go into it, I can't tell you. But it's a
"historical" matter. Perhaps this "work of art" conflicts with the structure of today's
art world --it is closer to something very age-old, to literary art, to text,
to history painting, to that which was created to be "read" and "interpreted"
long before pretentious semiotic fashion bloated the interpretive spirit into self-parody.
Realism, not hyperrealism. In order to "read" its "artistry", one has to become a little
bit archaic. Go to an era when death and pain and agony were celebrated. When "ugliness"
inspired ferocious awe. All as a part of the sublime marvel of life and existence. Not
to get evangelical or anything, but the Bible had it all. And the endgame was after
World War I when, rather than "healing", the response was psychic apocalypse.
Everybody went kookie, lu-lu. Dada, Surrealism, Bolshevism, Naziism. The feeling
in the air would have pulverized most 9-11 memorials into sentimental melodramatic
mulch. Maybe it's generally good that we not revisit that time. But in this case,
maybe we should allow very cautiously for guarded exceptions...
Healing, versus anti-healing. 9-11 as an event spurring closeness to family and intimates
and the "breeding instinct" --whether as a direct result or not, I noticed a lot of that
in its aftermath (and even my Omni partner-in-crime was touched by the pattern).
But the effect on myself, perhaps aided by an array of outside circumstances, was
kind of opposite, affirming an abject rejection of the same. Like Ground Zero
really became my lover. Like it was the answer to a long and confused life's
search and all that popular-song doggerel. And real, normal, person-to-person, Noah's
Ark forever-destiny love, an inadequate dream that had long been fraying and curdling
into menoandropausal othersidedom, was now, seemingly, truly deeply kaput.
Maybe just for the moment --especially if 9-11-02's a "Dear John" letter.
But the moment lasts. I'm possessed by 9-11 in a 1919 sort of way, as though
war devastation is making me go calculatedly bonkers and creating Prouns
and Merzbilds and Neue Sachlichkeits all around me. Hey, somebody has to.
And it sure ain't gonna be Damien Hirst or his ilk. To see this as art, or
at least as artlike, you really have to put yourself back into a 1919 avant-garde
frame of mind in order to salvage some shred of validity. And not the Greil
Marcus kewl version of 1919, either. The real 1919, where art vanquishes sober
life, no pose, nothin'. Total cultural freakout, surging forward, or backward,
or in all directions toward the unknown.
Whatever it is, it's turned out to be a 2002 anachronism.
To seek a 1919ness of being is an exercise in cultural displacement.
A usefully giddy one, though.
But if we must ditch the 1919 reflex, at least in part, and sober up...
well, we gotta figure out what to do about Lower Manhattan, right?
Post-9-11-02, things really seemed to be settling into a boring gravity, now with the
requisite "name architect" ennui that for so long delicately eluded the turf.
And as I had previously conjectured, the name "Libeskind" is portentously figuring
into the discussion --though given the nature of the task, it was probably as much
a befitting no-brainer as figuring Le Corbusier into the UN discussions after WWII.
Except that unlike in 1945, the architect's ego, or even the anti-architects' ego,
has left us plum tuckered out. In confronting Ground Zero, we've run out of
confrontational gas. Toxic not through tragedy, but through burnout. Might
as well mothball the jernt; it ain't enough to inspire or be inspired --Libeskind
or no Libeskind, Maya Lin or no Maya Lin or any of them professional ooh/aah memorializers.
Cop-out? Even Omni's thrust re Ground Zero has been toward "no-build" (if not quite mothball)
mode. And that's regarding the whole site, not just the twin footprints. Others have,
too --and the likelihood seems to increase, the younger and rootsier you get.
Leave it alone; or even, as a reversion tactic, turn it into meadow, into pasture,
into an organic urbanity of olden time. (Timothy "Speed" Levitch, whom I'd earlier
wondered about, finally had his say --placing himself within the reversion-tactic camp.)
The trouble with the reversion tactic, though, is that it's naïve --a denial of NYC and
the forces that have, especially over recent decades, shaped it. Like the place
epitomizes some kind of Western evil and decadence which we need to be cleansed of.
Like there must be sweet'n'innocent revenge against all of capitalist culture --if the
American empire is on the skids of Roman decadence, these are the forces that want to
fast-track the skid in order to assuage their own disillusionment. Seeks to be virtuous,
but winds up fashionably small and piddly instead. Small and piddly in the manner of
millennial youngsters and young adults, whose feigned and self-conscious amateurism begets
their own alienation from grandeur --the grandeur of high culture and pop culture alike.
"Post-philistines", call them. Stunted people who take the WTC waaaay too seriously as
some horrific whatchamacallit that was imposed upon them, and "never again" ...ho hum.
And in their eyes, it might as well conflate into Seagram and Lever and the crowds at
MoMA or the Lincoln Center --regardless of quality, it's all some horrific
whatchamacallit to them.
Big deal. I don't wanna be cleansed of nuthin'. Bottled or filtered water my foot;
I'll take mine on tap, minerals, chemicals, and all. And the lowliest and/or most
urbane zones in NYC need the more ravenously crass and/or touristic zones as counterpoint;
otherwise, they'd be static and flat. I've no bone to pick with any side at all, race or
class or political leaning. It was my grandparents' way of beholding the world; everything
held together, served the total tableau. Thus the rich folk of Turtle Bay or Tribeca aren't
there to be simply sneered at, spat at, or longingly aspired toward; what matters is that
they're human like you and I. We're all equals. Puzzle pieces. The rich are so humble,
they invite us --perhaps a little inadvertently-- to coexist. Same with the poor or
middle classes. I almost can't figure out why they'd reject us.
And that is how I knit my 2001 New York Christmas-by feeling how it all holds together.
A great harmony among honest unequals. Rockefeller and skank.
My grandparents were one great antidote to post-philistinism.
Oh, and they were alive in 1919.
Thus, if the ultimate Ground Zero solution is to "do nothing", it has to
turn that nothing into something. Without denying the modern world; but
also without, in the name of "business as usual", denying what happened here.
An absence with presence, and a special kind of absence-presence, at that. And
it's devilishly, disconcertingly simple.
It's what I had in mind earlier when offering the idea of "just space" --the implication
being that "just space" wasn't simply static and commemorative, but something dynamic,
contemporary, and searingly, actively urban. A multifaceted tableau for our
And it dawned on me after the 9-11-02 commemoration ceremonies: to date, nobody had used
Ground Zero as is, in its post-clean-up state, as a matrix for the site's future.
Forget the towers; how about the pit?
And this is important to note. Perhaps people were too 9-11-fatigued to notice; but
the ceremonies did prove one thing: Ground Zero has the makings of one powerful urban agora.
A gathering place; a people place. Something echoing the best aspects of Times Square,
Grand Army Plaza, Union Square, even Central Park (or, for that matter, the Battery
Park Esplanade, which this'd effectively be spillover from).
Perhaps it was that strange substructural remnant of the WTC left standing beneath Verizon
that tweaked a little something; its exedra-like form could bring out the inner
Bramante in anyone.
Do not take "as is" too seriously; especially given continued subway and PATH and related
infrastructural construction, the form of Ground Zero remains in flux. And it remains
a raw wound awaiting many, many aesthetic and safety refinements, as well as fine
tunings of access and circulation, before it can even pass as useable space. But
the bones are there (and please, smart alecks, refrain from ossuary metaphors).
Creative thought and action can achieve a lot --not only aesthetically, but also
programmatically. This should be more than a solemn place for mourning or wailing;
it should be a place for diverse, eclectic urban life. Conquering tragedy through
activity, through intense usage.
Not a pit of terror and tragedy; a pit of transcendence.
An everything place. And let the city revolve around it.
Pits have been creatively utilized in the past; think of all the times that quarries
have been turned into ornamental public gardens --but my idea's anything but verdant
and bucolic. As a public space, Ground Zero must remain fundamentally hardscaped.
And perhaps deliberately "ugly" --it works for Holocaust museums. But good, sturdy,
functionally useful "ugly", that's its own most persuasive argument. A homeliness
we can all accept, given the circumstances. A touch funerary --but cemeteries are
pleasure grounds, too. Places to gambol. Places to think. Places to love and remember.
Places of tribute. Places of exhilaration.
Still a reversionary tactic, but closer to my vision than some, is the October 2002 Project for
Public Spaces newsletter piece making a case of reinstating something like Washington Market
to these environs. Though it'd be too much a fashionable Greenmarket writ large. And the
solution smells curative-urbanist-theory retrogressive in spite of itself. Even if it "works".
(But it would work better if New York were more psychically pregnant to the bone like Vienna.
Ah, eating burenwursts in February gazing at Otto Wagner's Linke Wienzeile block…) Yet why not
a market here, in part --there's enough space. Just don't make it the one and only raison d'etre
for Ground Zero renewal --there's still that whole 9-11 jazz to deal with. Something deeper than
a conventional curative is required...
Rock and skyscrapers; the great stratospheric soar. It's what dates them, fixes them as
c20 phenomena. Adored by misguidedly ingenuous male adolescents; Roark & Roll.
Crane your neck high. Be dazzled.
I noted this with Frampton's "Do You Feel Like We Do" --the corollary between song
length and building height. Once it was all about 2 or 3-minute pop songs; then the
aspiration became to soar. As rock grew longer, it soared, it scraped the skies. That
was the ideal; to scrape the skies. To head into the heavens where everything appeared
illustrated by Roger Dean (one assumes). Rock space was vertical space.
But contemporary to DYFLWD, the vertical-space hegemony was disrupted. And no, it wasn't
due to punk and the Sex Pistols --although it's easy to imagine the gruff shift to low-rise,
as DYFLWD-the-single conveniently coincided with "Anarchy In The U.K.". Instead, it was
due to disco. In the disco realm, similar to 70s rock, length was treasured --epic, extended
length-- but it was a different kind of length. It was not vertical, but horizontal-scaled to
the dance floor Disco Stu, not to the shag-haired schmoe in the adolescent bedroom. It did
not soar; it sprawled. It sprawled an infinite sprawl. It encompassed all. And infinite
meant infinite; disco sprawl was temporally versatile. A track could extend forever, or
extend straight into other tracks and still further forever, fleshing itself out and stripping
itself down according to whim. To those accustomed to altitude, the dynamism of disco
horizontalism required a certain conditioning. But once digested, its possibilities
(many only fulfilled with the advent of rave and techno culture) were fresh and endless.
Disco itself was perma-associated with the 1970s, but what disco begat assumed
dominance --horizontal was sexy, and tied to the idea of movement and context.
While rock verticalism became something jejune, naively prima donna and narcissistic.
Technology and gravity meant you can only go so high; but you can go as far and as wide as
you want. And even the far and wide can encompass that which is high --skyscrapers exist
within a context, not just in and of themselves. Horizontality dwarfs verticality,
believe it or not. It teeters even more upon that Silver Tightrope.
Nor is horizontality the end of it all --there soon came an additional element: virtuality.
Horizontal and vertical and loop-di-doo all around. Its seeds of mass revelation arrived
in the early 80s, with the advent of video gaming and MTV --and it broke everything even
wider open than before. Disco broke the hegemony of rock scale; with virtuality, though,
all popular musi-centric scale, as defined and dominant within Cold War masscult in a manner
that seems, in retrospect, painfully naïve and meagre, was fractured. Virtuality was the
ur-horizontality, the ur-verticality. The younger you got, the more you were naturalized
into virtual perception.
And it's all about perception --and we must visualize Ground Zero and its future in such
"virtual" terms. Or something beyond. Ground Zero is a chance to make both horizontality
and virtuality soar.
Perhaps even a soar sans soaring objects, other than those existing that constitute
the backdrop --Verizon, Woolworth, 1 Liberty, St. Paul's steeple, etc. A radiating,
figurative soar, deferential to the context, deeper, greater than Louis Sullivan
could have dreamed of. A soar of the soul.
Not that horizontal or even virtual soar wasn't anticipated by heroes of mythic-American
bushwah like Whitman, Thoreau, Emerson --but as with the idea of reviving Washington
Market, the principle is good, but too deep within the bowels of history.
(And for foreigners weary of Dubyah bushwah, the narcissism of such reference points
is perfect anti-American kindling. Walt Whitman as a Yankee Goethe, you know.)
We need a boundaryless, dominionless, dynamic virtual horizontality of today.
And we really have to look at current international design trends to sense what a soaring
sprawl, a sprawling soar, could be about. (Paradoxically the WTC, which both soared
[the Twins] and sprawled [the Plaza], fell short of such fundamentals. That's Princess
Di-ness for you.)
Trace the roots to Le Corbusier's Ville Radieuse (and I certainly felt its
SilverTightropean germ in spades wandering Radieusian Warsaw), but theoretical
evolution and galloping advances in CAD technology made a lot possible in the
80s --think of examples like Tschumi's Parc de la Villette-- and "horizontal
virtuality" is really the foundation for Rem Koolhaas's oeuvre, designed and
written, from EuraLille to Toronto's Tree City. And if one can scrape away
the Remster's fashionable architecturally gesturing gobbledygook --and consider
that, through the usual combination of young practitioners and osmosis,
the gobbledygook has already left its indelible, not displeasing mark upon
progressive common practice-- we have useful principles running. A disarming,
anti-Koolhaas application of what are superficially Koolhaasisms, subversive
for being so…commonsensical. Infiltrating from the floorboards. We is all
As any thoughtful mere mortal who's interacted with Ground Zero will attest,
it's already happened. And will continue to happen. Figuratively speaking,
my grandparents, babes in the woods, gaze at S, M, L, XL with wide-eyed fascination.
Nothing abject --in fact, the abjectitude is cleanly peeled away from the abject.
We live in a fascinating world. We never don't.
So, there you have it. Use the pit as a basis for future plans. A place to frolic, and
send the offices and malls elsewhere --no offence to the office/mall proponents.
(We need offices. We need malls. Just not smack dab here, if you can help it.)
Try a little bit of Alexanderplatzian spatial vastness; and make it drop-dead dynamic,
fueled by the extemporaneous. Yet still a memorial to the dead. But grabbing the bull
by the horns, and allowing us all to surf. A straight, little or no chaser, tableau for
surfing. Kowabunga, dude. And if you want a few little vertical elements and other doodads,
hey, that's cool. Just don't let it get out of hand. Don't obliterate space.
In symbolic terms, perhaps it might be something that could be to the c21 what
Times Square was to the c20; speaking very open-endedly and certainly not literally,
maybe consider that...
Maybe too many of the design-minded want to bring their "inner designer" out when
confronting this kind of situation. In my case, it's more somewhere between the
"inner competition organizer" and the just-plain human empowerer.
I don't know. And it's in spite of the "Dear John" message. In spite of the
relentless (or even already fulfilled?) threat of 9-11 becoming the most
fatally hackneyed cultural reference point of all time. In spite of the fact that
I haven't been to NYC since Xmas 2001. In a certain deep-down special place,
Ground Zero will never stop being my lover...
She's A Lot Like Lucifer
But here's the oddest, eeriest part of all.
There was a little ominous name-drop in "The Transcendence Explodes", and a full-blown
(if apocryphal) explosion at the end of "Appendix To The Transcendence". She sort
of backed into being an OmniWTC idee fixe. But what wasn't expected was that within
months of that text, and (more or less) by her own volition, erstwhile teen-popper
Christina Aguilera would actually proceed to figuratively fulfill what was signified
within my text. By freaking people out, totally. To quote from the very beginning of
the "Transcendence" series: "it's almost as if we have to, in quasi-Dada frenzy,
counter-snuff amongst ourselves". It took at least a year, but here, breaking
through from the realm of USA Pop Culture, was the first evidence of what form such
self-immolating counter-snuffery could take. However potted.
And it's a different creature, wilder and woollier than the 9-11 tributes and requiems
and memoria we're familiar with and ho-hummed about (including, in the pop-rock realm,
Bruce Springsteen's ballyhooed "The Rising"). This was more like the reverberations
of a moment. A striking of a mood. An echo of all that was jaw-dropping about that
day and its aftermath. Without having the least bit to do with it. It was all totally
unconscious, a spectacle of sublime havoc.
And it emanated from a major-league embodiment of complacent September 10th style Middle
American popcult fluff: a pop tart from the millennial teenpop mania. Now suicide-bombing
her own realm, and perhaps others besides.
Remember when the biggest fear at hand was the Y2K bug? When the great celebrity duality
pop culturati were obsessing over was "Britney" and "Christina" --two teen tarts who went
from the Mickey Mouse Club to the top of the charts? Britney Spears came first, and became
the dominant all-American Barbie Doll icon of the fin de siecle, dressing like jail bait
yet espousing virginity, plugging Pepsi, likely being a de facto defibbrilator for Senator
Strom Thurmond, etc. And then Christina Aguilera arrived, less prettily pop-iconic but
possessing a powerful multi-octave voice and, apparently, talent to burn. (Although
within this context, it's like singling out the Crazy Elephant "Gimme Gimme Good Lovin'"
guy within the Kasenetz-Katz stable.) There were other pop tarts (Jessica Simpson,
Mandy Moore, etc) lingering at close range, but "Britney" and "Christina" loomed,
in a goody-two-shoes Beatles/grittyeetwise Stones fashion, highest
in the imagination.
While it's true that the teenpop craze was effectively launched by the Spice
Girls c1996-97, the schoolyard/parlour-game/webchat duels over teenpop jailbait
possessed less arguing-over-Spice-Girls campiness than arguing-over-Lennon-Sisters
antiseptic triviality. Even if the nature of the discussion tended to be a lot
less wholesome than the Lennon Sisters ever endured, it was all pretty insufferably
processed-whitebread (if, in the case of Britney Spears, leavened by applied reflexive irony).
A real Warhol's-endgame moment in American popular culture.
But Christina Aguilera was a sort of black-sheep oddity among this Aryanesque bunch,
and not just because she could sort of wail like Aretha Franklin or obsessively-compulsively
verbalize good-natured pretensions toward street trash and the Ebonics crowd.
The fact is: she was funny-looking. Not exactly "heroically ugly" in the aggressive
manner of divas like Barbra Streisand or Celine Dion or Janis Joplin or Dame Joan
Sutherland; but she had a strange, indeterminably disconcerting narrow-faced,
google-eyed, serpentine quality. Within a genre undeniably slathered with a
little-Lolita-sweetums dirty-old-or-not-so-old-male-appeal subtext, Aguilera
was certainly the most physically idiosyncratic, "interesting", but a distinctly
acquired taste. And while one's tempted to attribute her crypto-mulattesque
exoticism to the ethnicity reflected in her surname, when one considers the
situation deeply she doesn't even seem to hold much more than token conviction
as a Latina (despite recording a Spanish album). There was too much of that
schizoid Greater Pittsburgh childhood in her for salsa --a strange melded product
of 70s/80s-style intermixed-coupling, indeed. (Though maybe at best, she's
Latina like I'm Polish --the worm's-eye spirit is there, but could never get
the language right, my favourite building there is by a German Jew, something's
off-kilter and off-orbit, there's weird Tartar stuff on my maternal grandfather's
Truth be told, despite the cruel if inevitable "Uglylera" thrust of much
webchat, Aguilera's physical persona (together with her voice) possessed
a sort of unnervingly intense if offbeat minor-key soulful allure that was
understandably more germane to iconoclastic taste than Britneyitis.
Perhaps it's best put this way: if Britney was Modern, Xtina was
Moderne --or at least, a more mannered and less astringently puristic
variation on the Modern.
If Britney Spears is Futura, Christina Aguilera is Kabel.
Le Corbusier vs Mallet-Stevens. FLW vs George Maher. In fact, the best comparison
of all is classic old-school: Bernini vs Borromini.
Of course, Bernini was the insufferably great ingratiator, while Borromini was
the wild'n'wooly suicidal soul. Unfortunately, like the geek genius who spaz-dances
in a desperate attempt to match Tony Manero, Aguilera (or her image) soon
demonstrated a tendency to wildly overcompensate for her perceived deficiencies
--not only physically (relative to Britney et al), but in overall persona
(relative to the teenpop genre at large). Thus, this Stones-to-Britney's-Beatles
lapsed into something more like a Daffy-to-Britney's-Bugs. In figurative terms,
Britney's the one who knows how to tease the pervs; but Xtina's the one who winds
up getting gang-raped. Or at least, getting caught by the principal, the parents,
the police, etc. Not exactly a full-blown "bad girl", but a walking bullseye.
It wasn't long before rumours of varying degrees of substantiation spread of
drug habits and multiple-inclination sluttiness and other slanderous
Eminem-rapped-and-worse sweet nothings on Aguilera's part. Aguilera and her
camp personally refuted the worst of these; but in truth, she helped fuel as
many fixated rumours as she quenched, whether through self-conscious racial-dysphoria
playa talk or through rather archly open confessions of her being (unlike Britney) a
true, womanly sexual creature. If she clearly demonstrated the kind of grey matter
that could have ratcheted these statements clean away from the teenpop and
millennial-mass-media pack, it might have worked --on the other hand, the logistics
were so daunting as to be nearly impossible to overcome.
But what truly super-adhesive-bonded Aguilera to the realm of the ridiculous was the
way that she channeled the golden age of Cher in her sartorial sense; in trying to
out-Britney Britney on award shows and public events, she went way too far,
so far that she became the encyclopedia illustration of "what was she thinking".
(An illustration of her with precisely that caption adorned a local poster for a
TV entertainment network a couple of years ago.) Her most notorious
finger-in-the-light-socketed get-ups universalized the equation of her to
Twisted Sister vocallist Dee Snider. Even when Aguilera's adornment was
less obliteratingly excessive, her eccentric physicality worked against
her --in fact, in stepping boldly away from teen sweetness, she had a
propensity toward highlighting, rather than concealing, her pecularities.
Which left her looking like something between Banger Sister Junior and
crack whore; or more accurately, like a wildly schizoid apotheosis of
whiggerdom. (And with her features, she did succeed --for better or worse-- in
looking like a black woman turned Caucasian through cyber-magic; which may
also say something about the double standard held against her. More than
likely, if she were black, with the same kind of sartorial sense, she
wouldn't have been subjected to the same kind of ridicule. There's that
racial distancing; black chix are "like that", ya know.) And it became
wilder when piercings (facial and wherever else) and other bodily
adornments (or non-adornments) entered the picture.
One point when this image of Xtina the Xcessive worked to good effect was, paradoxically,
the apotheosis of the "Dee Snider" look: that is, when she teamed up with Li'l Kim, Mya
and Pink for the "Moulin Rouge" soundtrack's chart-topping "Lady Marmalade" remake.
But that's more because it worked thematically with the movie and the song, and because
she was subsumed within a distaff-millennial Blind Faithesque super-ensemble. And it
had nothing to do with musical merit. In fact, for an awful long time, "Lady Marmalade"
was almost Aguilera's only musical output. It was a long gap following her 1999 debut,
which seemed, following the teenpop fade and bust, of a whole different era. The image
of Christina Aguilera as sweet teen pop star with actual talent was in danger of being
obliterated by the "wack vaginal-puppetry minstrel dingbat from Skanky Ho, Pennsylvania"
persona which SNL loved to milk for laughs. Leading into 9-11, it seemed to take an
ominous "how far can she go?" turn when it was all but confirmed that she'd had a
nipple piercing and was mulling the same for her privates. And then came that
Appendix To The Transcendence-quoted reputed XXXtina porn video. It doesn't matter
that the idea of it being her in the video was soon definitively, irrevocably shot
down-the fact that mattered was that the rumour was plausible at all. (Who knows;
despite the denials, maybe it was her. How definitive is "definitive", anyway?)
This cornucopia of real and reputed and refuted Aguileran excess did have its desperate
"Duck Amuck" thrill; all the jarring piercings and exposed flesh and wild-eyed sartorial
gaffes and well-meaning Berlitz street-talk was to Britney's comparatively staid variety
of cheesecake what Rare Earth's "(I Know) I'm Losing You" was to its breakthrough predecessor,
"Get Ready". The latter was conventionally "heavy" in the manner of a c1970 soul-rock showband
where everyone's white like the Chambers Brothers' drummer; it's the former that went fashionably,
unsettlingly berzerk with the vocal echo effects and wah-wah explosions and
guitar-feedback'n'distortion-gone-haywire. The net result might be indescribably ungainly
and aesthetically unpleasant --but it's certainly an awful lot more interesting. (My post-9-11
pet name for the first and wildest of those Rare Earth "I'm Losing You" wah-wah explosions:
"the Penultimate Splatter".)
But there was still an unpleasant giddiness at hand vis-à-vis Christina Aguilera. Even when
uttering the predictable quasi-feminist statements regarding her personal and artistic
expression, she seemed to not have quite a handle on what she was doing; like, what might
have worked for Madonna or Courtney Love or Missy Elliott or even "Lady Marmalade"'s Li'l
Kim or Pink didn't ring true for her. Characteristically, Xtina might have been "LM"'s
electrifying lead presence and could out-belt her sistas, yet she remained the desperate
wannabe. Like the archetypal spaz… or worse, especially given the message-board ugly-slut
can't-keep-her-legs-together fold-spindle-mutilate cruelty that she seemed particularly
prone to. (The myth goes like this. If Britney's got a blank and vacant facial expression,
it's because she's a plastic-silicone Barbie doll. If Xtina's got a blank and vacant facial
expression, it's because she's on smack.) If the fin-de-siecle American mass media dynamic
she was part of wasn't so opaque and mentally-novocained, one could almost have sworn that
this former child star was headed for a strange, seamy Judy-Garland-meets-the-GTO's level
of personal tragedy. And all the more unsettling when one considered that she was still
a de facto "child star", or at least a star who catered to children.
In fact, beneath the foot-shooting slutty-soul-sista-spazisms, the Aguilera machine itself
(with her mother playing a strong part) remained fairly contained, and likely conscious that
in her case, "the music, stupid" was a useful principle to save face. Thus there may have
been award-show appearances and strategic magazine cover stories, but not commercial endorsements
a la Pepsi or movie acting deals, and certainly not the opening for a Whitney/Mariah-styled public
breakdown/meltdown. She seemed to have some kind of feet on the ground as a latently serious artiste
for real --and everything hinged upon the Godot-like mystery of what, exactly, she was going to come
up with next. Hints were dropped that it was to be raunchier, or more adventurous, or whatever,
than her debut --but in the teenpop universe (nay, the 2002-style commercial recorded music industry
at large), it was easy to regard that as idle threat leading up to certain anticlimax. What did
she mean by that --after all, wasn't every teenpop survivor promising something similar? Bantamweight
Alanis/Robbie Williams moves? Yeah, collaborating with the 4 Non Blondes chick; so what. Think of
all the erstwhile 50s/60s-schmaltz artists habitually donning Nehru jackets and singing Bob Dylan and
spouting Kahlil Gibran by 1968...
Nicely enough, it was by peeping through the late-August 9-11 first-anniversary buildup that we saw
the answer start to emerge. And the breakthrough moment --the two tarts' appearances on the 2002 MTV
Video Music Awards-- was the most audacious, nay, portentous variation on the "Bugs" Spears vs "Daffy"
Aguilera oneupsmanship trope yet.
Britney, in her inimitable and campier-by-the-minute
manner, appeared in a sort of bubblegum-biker-hooker-dominatrix uniform-black leather cap and thigh-high boots
and a slashed'n'strapped tight minidress sort of thing --yet she remained coherent, plausible, not too revealing
for her own tease: as always, the pop-art photogenic debutante of the ball.
Xtina, on the other hand, took a roughly parallel hooker-chic note (white cap this time)
and crossed the line into the truly disturbing. True, it was a step away from the notorious
eye-gouge Dee Snider look --sort of like an evolution from 20s Art Deco angular-decorative
excess to 30s streamlining-- but it was a 180%-and-pedal-to-the-floor sort of step from
wild-eyed overadornment to an even more perverse little-to-the-imagination underadornment.
The critical elements: what appeared to be an unraveled do-rag turned into a bizarre
reverse-cleavage halter; and a denim, er, band around her waist that seemed calculated
to display what pray tell she had done to herself "up there". And acres of midriff, etc.
flesh. Just space. An emptiness devoid of fabric, or anything but a strange pervertedly
iridescent honeymoon-in-the-brownfields-of-Ruda-Slaska greasy grotty glow. Forget Li'l
Kim, or Li'l Iodine; this was too perverse to even be pornographic. (Sample dialogue
from alt.gossip.celebrities: "After looking at some recent pix of CA, I've come to
think she wants to be a black woman." "I dunno --judging by all that orange self-tanner
crap she uses, I think she really wants to be an Oompa Loompa...")
What seemed to underscore the incalculable sleaze of this get-up was that it
appeared unnervingly awkward, disconcerting, disjointed. Rather than sexy or
racy or campy or badaasss or raunchy, it was ugly. It didn't work, even from an
Italian Mannerist flipped-pediment standpoint. It was the most hideously
conceived "hooker getup" ever --obscenely hideous, or hideously obscene, to the
point of queasiness; and this was one case where the minimalistic exhibitionism
involved really added to the ugliness-- proving that even in the realm of the ugly,
"less is more". (Regardless --well, at least partially regardless-- of Xtina's own
physical peculiarities.) Britney's biker-whore costume was iconically happy
vulgarity like the '59 Cadillac; Xtina's reverse-cleavage was more like the
cockeyed headlights on the '59 Buick Riviera --something not to be repeated,
and blessedly so. Ugliness, as we know, generates its own higher-level
fascination --but this getup sat on any such fascination and fractured its
spine. Which made it more fascinating still --until that fascination was
fractured in its turn. And so on, ad infinitum.
Ugliness that's subliminally (sublimely?) defiant, almost an allusion to exposed
genitalia even when there was no such thing. (Nothing's more sublimely ugly than
the exposed genitalia of either gender.) For the record, while Britney remained
the belle of the ball at the VMAs, Xtina seemed somewhat shunned and relegated to
the sistas and misfits who probably also felt her to be arms-length toxic waste.
But her outfit was more than that. It didn't just cross an awards-show line for
depraved perversity. It was ominous. A powder keg. Like Xtina was about to blow.
And blow BIG. And nothing to do with fellatio, either. A rumble
was in the air.
Cautious observers discreetly veiled the disturbing message behind Xtina's VMA
garb by giving another per-usual go-around to the "there she goes again" cliches.
And regarding the long-awaited album "Stripped" that was finally, at last, about
to be released, and the promise that her new in-control image was to be "raunchier"
and "more adventurous" and prove her mettle as an "adult" artist... yeah yeah, we've
heard it before, Britney's already done the hot'n'heavy thing in "I'm A Slave 4 U",
so what. Just more anti-American sabre-rattling from Muslim clerics, ho, ho, hum.
We've learned from the 1993 bombing. Etc.
And the first shard from her long-awaited musical return, a mundanely shrieky
hip-hop collaboration with Redman called "Dirrty", appeared to confirm all suspicions
about this supposed new "raunchy" "adult" image; it was, at best, an ambivalent note
on which to launch a comeback, at first blush sounding like humdrum calculated
cacophany with unconvincing declamations of dirrtiness. And unlike the "Lady Marmalade"
quartette, Aguilera and Redman just detracted from each other. It met with a dull thud
of a response, topping out at #48 on Billboard.
Oh, but the video was to tell the whole picture. It's supposedly hot. Like,
yeah. We're supposed to take that seriously. And if it's true, well, we always knew
she was swallow-not-spit spread-legged sleazier than Britney, anyway. Fly off to
Forget Skanksville. She slid straight off the Skanksville precipice into... Shanksville.
"Frampton Comes Alive" was nothing without "Do You Feel Like We Do". "Do You Feel Like We Do"
was nothing without its single release. And "Dirrty" was nothing without its video.
Fundamentally, it was the same old Bugs-Daffy story; taking that Britney Slave4U thang
one step too far, as anticipated. Except that this step was, as Bugs'd say, a lu-lu.
It wasn't just a departure from the teeny image; it was a decimation. A pummeling. An utter
annihilation. An immolation. A brutally repellent doing-over of everything with a tire-iron,
cat o'nine tails, bolo, fireballs of flaming jet fuel, the works. Everything was covered with
a dust as caked-up and silvery as Xtina's streaked hair. Nothing was spared. Total destruction...
and was this supposed to be "transcendence"? But whatever it was, it was something. Delirium.
Which began at 8:46, and ended at 10:28, Aguilera time.
Maybe not so much an object of pornographic fixation, as a reverse-blunderbuss response
"in kind" --and then some. She went too far, she really went too far. She not only threw
her image into the burn-up machine; she tossed herself in, as well. It was nauseating,
sickening to watch. Yet people couldn't stop watching, couldn't stop talking. One
difference: rather than being silenced until Hizzoner gave the thumbs-up, SNL (with gags
about giving TV monitors genital warts and Sarah Michelle Gellar playing "real ho" Xtina)
was instantly energized. The video did little discernable on behalf of the "Dirrty" single
itself (though, affected by the nuclear shadow of the video, the track would never sound
mundane again); in fact, it probably crashed the apparatus. While SNL sniggered, others
gasped: wretched, lurid, tasteless, one doozy of a career move misfire, and horribly
irresponsible for a tween-appeal avatar. And it still lit up video-show request lines.
But in all the wrong ways. Violation. Transcendent, maybe... but violation.
And that, seemingly was the point. Here, encapsulated, finally, within the banally
decadent grasp of millennial American celeb culture, was that more fearfully sinister
decadent spirit of 1919 in all its Behrensian-Poelzigian splendour; just what Dr.
Caligari ordered. This is what we anarchic pop-cultural spirits wanted to happen
after 9-11... and count us in. We don't want no insipid curative process; we want
energy. We want everything to tear itself, rip itself apart, to shreds, to
tatters. It's a changed world.
EXCEPT... that was the myth.
The myth behind the "Dirrty" video was staggering. But the reality was, believe it or not,
still unconvincing. And blame the medium --like video games, music video inspires a
distressed-jeans kind of jadedness. Even one who doesn't regularly follow the medium
(like myself) can go away feeling inured. One really has to be in a predictable position
of authority, like a parent, to respond with the requisite drop of the jaw. Anyway,
the video had more of its intended clout in screen caps or via downloads --testament to
the Internet's happy-go-lucky seamy reputation-or when processed through gossip and SNL
parody. Then again, like "Do You Feel Like We Do" in its 45RPM or radio edits, maybe
the video we saw was only a palimpsest...
But who am I to know what's "beyond the line"; I'm not in that position of
responsibility. In fact, I'm more the child.
Besides, "Dirrty" was only the tip of a total autumn media splash package, which
included a nude Rolling Stone cover and accompanying story, as well as a similarly,
er, "revealing" MTV Diary feature. As of writing, there are hints that there may
be a horizontal-soaring calm after the storm --especially with the release of the
"Stripped" CD and Xtina having proved her point, thank you. But the total message
remained unsettling; and what any of this means for her future career, or her
future, period, who knows.
For whatever it's worth, nothing, still, about said splash could make her
confrontational gesturing convincing, even in the midst of going haywire.
Aguilera remained the wildly overreaching, vacuous lookit-me-I'm-a-fly-girl
(desperate-to-be-)ex-teen-star. Except that now, the overreach was working,
mysteriously (and in an echo of S.J. Russell on "Frampton Comes Alive" --though
in the case of "Stripped" itself, the Clash's "Sandinista" might make a better
comparison), to its own advantage, creating its own justification. In (apparently)
taking charge, in (apparently) making her own decisions, she still didn't appear
to have a complete handle on what she was doing. It didn't exactly give off
conventional signals of "self-destructive" behaviour, mind you; but it lacked
the craft and calculation (for better or worse) that lies behind the
pop-confrontational excesses of Madonna or Courtney Love or Cher.
The most obvious parallel should be Alanis Morissette's own 1995
breakthrough from teen-idol purgatory; yet even that gesture had too much fine
craft to it, so that Alanis was fundamentally (and boringly) "at home" with her
revamped persona. In Aguilera's case, by comparison, it's like jagged shards of
old and new were protruding into and lacerating each other. There was an
uncertainty at play; after all she subjected us to, she still seemed the
stuff of Seventeen and YM and Twist, and in danger of remaining puerile persona
non grata to "serious" music fans who're probably mightily concerned that their
10-year-old daughters are using this nipple-ringed labia-ringed reverse-cleavaged
trash-talking google-eyed whiteboy-dissing Eminem-dissed Walt Dizzy Yes-Logo
nutbar as a personal role model. The image-remake glue wasn't taking; it was
glooping up all over the place and short-circuiting the infrastructure.
Something was wildly out of control.
And…that turns out to be kind of the point. It was beyond calculation. Unlike any of
the aforementioned, what Xtina did had a touch of the kamikaze about it; hang on to your
hats, folks, I'm plowing straight in, and whatever happens, happens, morals and ethics
and taste be darned. And in such a situation, "having a handle" is irrelevant and inapt.
It was meant to stun us. To take the "what was she thinking" principle and… create an
implosion with it. Luridly transfixing mass havoc. And more effective than the Tom
Green/Jackass school of "extreme" because it was…a woman. A sweetheart.
Like 9-11, the notion of "art" is irrelevant here. Such apparent in-spite-of-itself
craftlessness packs more wallop than the more openly "artistic" yet closed-environment
gestures of a Karen Finley or Carolee Schneeman or Annie Sprinkle. So not only does
Aguilera-bashing now resemble Yoko-bashing, but it bypasses it, and 9-11 versus the
movies (or Little Richard versus Verdi) strikes again. Those writhing bodies in the
"Dirrty" video might as well have been 72 virgins --Electric LadyAndGentlemanland.
But at some point, the dust has to settle, and it'll be the same-old, same-old,
just another pop-cultural pseudo-event of 2002. (A hollow accusation, perhaps;
after all, the American media machine was even capable of turning 9-11 into a
pseudo-event. Where does real, and where does pseudo, begin? Postmodern 80s
thought still holds in 2002.)
And in the final assessment, of all the Aguileran benchmarks breached (or not),
of all the trails blazed (or not), the most method-to-the-madness critical of all,
the most awestrikingly redeeming of all she's desperately strived for, is... piercing.
Xtina came out of the piercing closet. Not just admitting to nipple piercing, but
kind of displaying the results. And she proudly confessed to having the holiest of
all piercings... the female genital piercing. (Years ago, I whimsically suggested
that the only piercing I'd ever allow myself is a labia piercing.) And at her kind
of trajectory, who knows when she's going to publicly display that.
Maybe she has already...
True, in 2002, such body-alterations are a commonplace "rebellious" gesture --but
they're still a little forbiddenly startling to reflect upon, and it's probably
that point more than anything (including the "Dirrty" video) that's enough to
elicit concerned gasps from parents of Aguilera fans.
Because it's not just a matter of where, it's a matter of how.
As statements of fashionable rebellion, nipple/genital piercings have
hitherto still been locked away in a netherworld, if one pardons the
expression --mostly because, visually (never mind physically) speaking,
they're really quite awkward things to sport. At best, they've tended to
connote a punky fetish-culture extremism, and they work as an accessory
for strippers, porn-binary models, or contemporary clubbers --but that's
also a curse in disguise. The trouble is, because of where the piercings
in particular are, common discretion and courtesy calls for them to be hidden.
(Except in the case of male chests --but the long sailor-boy tradition renders
male nipple piercings benign to behold. Conversely, the nature of male
genitals renders their piercing not just inelegant, but kind of freak-show
grotesque.) And when exposed, they're too often the nadir of aren't-we-extreme
aren't-we-rebellious cutesy. At worst, the 20something couple naked and
sporting piercings in funny places is but the XYZ-Generation update of
the middle-aged middle-class nudists in old Playboy cartoons. Besides,
in these particular bodily locations, there's a difficult-to-overcome
aesthetic discord between sensuous naked flesh and the glint of jewellry.
The millennial mania for the Brazilian wax is one thing; to wax and then
add doodads is quite another. Especially when your flesh is still a
little distended following childbirth.
But from the evidence at hand, Christina Aguilera not only sports such
doodads; she's reinvented them. Retrieved them from punk-fetish Babylon.
Nipple piercing --and we may safely assume, labia piercing as well-- works on her.
Even as a kind of outer or semi-outer wear. It's elegant, demure, not freakish.
For real. Positive decoration. Moderne. Ground Zero of the
It really works better with a bubblegum core. It could only be done by somebody with
more Frampton than Pistols in her. (Pink = Pistols. Xtina = Frampton. I rest my case.)
At last, Aguilera's too often desperate game of Britney-oneupmanship had borne
positive fruit --though a giddy, incalculably unsettling kind of positive fruit.
Is this what we should responsibly expect from a not-so-erstwhile "teen star"?
And the funny thing is; while perhaps not exactly "in control", she wasn't a fallen star,
either, not a "Different Strokes" case. The message conveyed was: Xtina came by this
at her own volition.
The piercings are what the video was meant to be. They redeem her; she redeems them.
And with that recognition, the shivering feeling of complete and utter meltdown commences.
Connoisseurs of the giddy should consider this epochal fact; after ages of claiming
she was no antiseptic virginal sort like Britney, she flipped the legendary Britney
virginity-ruse on its head. After all, the message conveyed by a labia ring or
decoration is: look, and behold, and marvel --but don't touch, let alone penetrate.
Stick to your side of the green fence.
But what kind of influence is that? Especially if it's still a contemporary showbiz
"fix"? Where's the sense of responsibility?
Does it matter, anymore?
Here's what I'd say. I am a child. As a child, I don't see the fuss over
the "Dirrty" video. I don't get it; it's just more music-video wallpaper.
I'm as blind as I used to be re "Let's Get It On" or "Love To Love You Baby"
(that is, until the grownups reminded me of the wonderful awful truth behind
those songs). Even though I already had rudimentary sexual
knowledge and curiosity.
But the intimate piercing business --that leaves me aweuck.
Maybe this is only the beginning of what I'd hoped for following 9-11, in
spite of the mighty wall of jadedness out there. After all, a quarter
decade elapsed between the Beatles' Ed Sullivan appearance and Hendrix's
"Hey Joe". (Though perhaps Xtina's doing to intimate piercings what Hendrix
did to the Fender Strat. Remember that it's not just the noise he made,
it's the poetry behind the noise...)
Hey! I said she was Kabel! Not Kabul!
Damn, I Wish She Was Our Daughter
A true harps-and-Botticelli-and-Erich-Segal moment on the first day of November 2002.
At a newsstand at Toronto's BCE Place, CP24 used, of all things, Nico's "The Fairest Of
The Seasons" as bumper music... right at the moment I caught my first local newsstand glimpse
of the Christina Aguilera nude Rolling Stone cover. As if the image was suspended in
some kind of a mystery mandorla...
To paraphrase the title of one of the classic muse-movies, there's something
about muses. In a season when a non-fiction best-seller is Francine Prose's The
Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired, that's worth
considering. Even "Omnitectural Forum" has its patron-saint muse, herself
paraphrased in the title of this segment.
In fact, my musebasket is a much-fragged thing. A very Omni thing.
Muses have long been a definer and energizer, even before I was a consciously
sexual creature; the first "important" one was in kindergarten, and she set the
pattern. Once sexuality and awareness thereof entered the picture, it added
another cosmic layer to museness. But it wasn't as if there was one simple
muse. There's no fixed type, no fixed image. It was a diverse plethora of
muses, checking and balancing and overlapping each other, strewn about like
Tuscan hill towns or Pennsylvanian boroughs. Places I'd ramble through, without
having to fatally bond to. Over the years, they coalesced into their own
autonomous structure. While structures in their own right became muses.
In the course of this series, Ground Zero's claimed as my lover, but it
may more accurately, if not passionately, be labelled a muse. Maybe the
greatest muse of all. And a conglomerate of other muses, human and
architectural, can be discerned within the Transcendence text --culminating
with Aguilera surging forward and taking over the whole joint.
Very often for a very long time, before I came to terms with my own autonomy,
museness became at one with the answer for early-life questions, the search for
Ms Right. But it was only for a magical interval in Poland in 1984 when
museness intersected with a real life (human) love. It didn't last, and
probably mercifully so (though intermittent reverent contact's been retained
through the years). And out of respect, she doesn't even carry primacy among the
muses --though I could if I wanted to. But it was a haunting interval.
So haunting, it was fated to be a type example. To do it over, or attempt
the same, especially with a lesser example, would have been an indignity to
memory. Maybe another one, equal and better, will come; but she was sui generis.
And it is, now, a long long time since the summer of 1984. Sufficiently
long that a situational reassessment's called for.
Is a muse a meta-lover? The more seasoned the muse beholder, and the better
reinforced the muse superstructure, the more likely that love, let alone
lust, shall be subordinate. Less lover, than medium --as here. The artistic
muse. Still, there's the ghost of something behind the Aguileradentification;
she hit the 9-11 solar plexus, after all. But there's also the show biz
distance which renders her but an image, an icon, an abstraction --a debased
populist version of the artistic muse-- though in context, processed cheese can
melt into the nooks and crannies with good effect, as meltdown's the point of
the Transcendence series. Dwelling on something so crass; indeed, purposefully
buying into the crassness and unapologetically submitting to banality --it's a
suitably surreal post-apocalyptic reflex. The counter-purpose mirror held up
to popular culture in its horrible hyper-immediacy. And the horror's wonderful.
Yet beyond show-biz difference and residual vacuity, there's also the cultural
and --yes-- generational difference. The haunt of young love and lust and
infatuation, and the spectre of vanity and pathos as youth increasingly becomes
a distant memory. Generating muses now shouldn't be like generating muses 20
years ago. "Dirrty"-era Aguilera was as old as I was with that Polish lover
and muse. And I can't reach there again. Xtina's practically a daughter figure.
And with that realization… came an epiphany, and a fanciful response to the dilemma.
Not a fantasy lover. A fantasy daughter.
I suddenly took to considering... what if that Polish love bore fruit? How would
that fruit in question have turned out?
And here is where the answer was projected.
Sure, one has to shave about four years from Xtina's age, suck away some
of the sartorial excesses perhaps, and squirt a little non-showbiz substance
into her with a caulking gun. But the fundamentals appeared to fit. In
some eerily poetic way, here, symbolized, was the daughter we might have
had. Even with the whiggerisms and other traits which tie her --happily-- to
the present day.
A concept I'd never considered before; mostly because I'd been so disconnected
from the idea of having children, let alone adolescent children and beyond.
A teen-20ish woman still resonated (and at this point, rather dangerously) more
like a teen-20ish woman would have back when I was teen-20ish myself.
Imagining if something concrete came out of those beautiful moments on
Zolkiewskiego, in Nowy Sacz, behind the Orbis Hotel Beskid…or elsewhere
in our intimate intervals together...
...and this was that something concrete.
And on that note, musedom was turned inside out.
Not that it's a realistic image. In fact, to project a museish infatuation sort of
thing upon a daughter figure has a reverse-oedipal tinge of the grotesque. On the
other hand, it does serve as a strategic distancing, and acknowledgment of time's
passage. Perhaps it's a symbolic closing of a book.
And it frames that otherworldly summer of '84 --and by extension, my other Polish
experiences-- in another layer of eerie otherworldliness. Imagining that child
developing in the womb while I roamed the wheaty hills of Wojciechowice near
Klodzko… and here, all these years later, was the child in question.
My child. Our child.
I'm awestruck. And feel strangely warm, paternal: "That's my girl". You go, girl.
A "Butterfly Kisses" infatuation, it is.
Though queasy, uneasy, tottering along a line between Bob Carlisle and Bob Crane.
What is it, really, that strikes me with awe about her? Moreover, how have I
used her --exploited her-- in the "Transcendence" series? Pierced labia?
Alleged porn video synopses? Self-conscious image degradation?
Romantically speaking, this "daughter" idea is glorious. But morally, it's very
uneasy. Even if nothing physically untoward between she and I is involved.
Even if she comes, effectively, as a fait accompli, i.e. I didn't directly
instigate her, she instigated herself, that's-my-girl, you-go-girl, etc.
And such sublimation may explain why I rather mercifully don't have my own
family. Though in 1984, like so many, I kind of foresaw having my own
family, someday, as a normal passage of life's course --not that I was
practical and prepared for it, of course. There did exist that spirit
in the air with my Polish love; we were destined for life, we'll have
a beautiful family, etc. It felt to be the beginning of something
grand and magnificent. I really was thinking in terms of family,
of children in the future.
But when the Polish love came not to be, confusion reigned. Dreams
frayed; then curdled. Fate thwarted me. But it may well have spared
me. And now it frees me.
And it's as if I'm facing the daughter I never knew I had. I've met
her for the first time. Now.
And what pleases me most of all is that she --the received, (sort of)
endorsed 2002-style Aguilera image, never mind reality, for image
is all-- turned out to be her own person.
It ought to be as simple as casting a movie, or a play, of one's real
or hypothetical life. But I also wonder if it's part of a more
widespread strain. Perhaps as an unexpected outcome of 70s-style
adolescent sexual transcendentalism I've alluded to. Take, for example,
Aguilera's bete noire Eminem --there's a "fantasy child" aspect to the
huzzahs he's received from 30/40something music critics and cultural
commentators. It wasn't there in his youth-musical-icon predecessor
Kurt Cobain. And I suspect it's because he represents not only a
generation, but also principles, which are next-generational to
70s rock-based sexual transcendentalism. Fascinatingly, if not
fetishistically, next-generational. For those of us who were young
and "aware" in the 70s, he's like our own vulnerable child, who
confuses us, who perplexes us, who horrifies us, who fascinates us.
An archetype. And for those 70s survivors in spirit who never had
the luck of being parents and feel themselves drifting away from
the reproductive demographic… well, he's a brutal, vulnerable,
captivating symbol (yet oddly more attractive than a stable
"achiever", i.e. university student, bla bla bla) of what could
have been. Sympathetically speaking. And a tragic reminder
of how long ago that all was.
Christina Aguilera and Eminem are thus iconic equals --both brutal
and scary and "out of control", yet with an odd shimmering crystal
of sympathetic vulnerability about them. Funny, too, how the former
is the true sleeper, who actually manages to be more disconcerting
than the latter, although she's hitherto been framed as a
kind of antithesis...
The summer was 1984 --the fairest of my seasons.
And the nexus was Krakow. Where (at least before Perestroika
and the advent of "Schindler's List" tourism) the Stare Miasto
is (thankfully not too) obnoxiously "Britney", and whatever's
outside the Stare Miasto orbit is "Xtina". Outside the Planty
(the linear Ringstrassean park where the old town walls used to
be), the city flavour was grotty, mysteriously neglected c19-20
Mitteleuropan, where Communist torpor couldn't quite vanquish
the latent, as yet very under-tapped flavour of artsy bohemia.
And it had seldom if ever worked up in the tourist literature,
perhaps because it was assumed to be too workaday for history-besotted
(and insufficiently archi-urban-besotted) tourists --but it was real.
Funky. Tramcars-and-cobbles, li'l Vienna funky. With strange,
neglected dashes of Art Nouveau and Expressionist frenzy --and
with distance from the centre, Modernity's horizontal soar takes
command. (Walk and keep walking NW along Krolewska, deep into
the suburban Nowa Wies district and beyond, for the old-into-new
dynamism.) The story everywhere in Mitteleuropa, yes; but here
with a particularly intense and sensual tinge. Maybe because
Krakow itself works as an Xtina to Prague's Britney (and with
the atmospherically toxic applied Stalinism of Nowa Huta
adding the fold-spindle-mutilate violation element). Extend
the analogy to NYC, and Manhattan's Britney, the outer boroughs
are Xtina; or, WTC is Britney, the surrounding context is Xtina;
you get the picture...
Directly west and a bit from the Stare Miasto is the great green
Papal-mass wedge known as the Blonie, an effortless urban meadow
which beckons us in the sunsetting direction, you see the future,
you see the glory, you see Kosciuszko Mound and the green hills
beyond... out around the Blonie's northwesternmost corner is where,
in 1984, we first held hands, we first embraced, before taking the
3 Maja tram into town... the next day, we went up to Kosciuszko Mound...
the third day, we went east of the centre…the fourth day, we made love...
…and here, in the form of Xtina, is the fantasy personage that might
have blossomed from all of that.
Just off that NW Blonie corner, by the way, was a happy and fascinating
little colony of well-lived-in villas and terrace houses upon a wishbone
street pattern which, by all 1983/84 visual indications, plainly appeared
to be one of those interwar Modernist-vocabulary mini-Weissenhofs. A place
with a story, an architectural story, surely --if every sizeable Central
European city worth its salt had its assigned avant-garde villa zone, this
must have been Krakow's. And the pure little mini-Weissenhof archetype
works like a muse for me, especially in drab Communist Poland where everything
felt like it evoked some hazily exotic 1930s suspended-animation state of
affairs, to the degree where even my Polish love felt more 30s than 80s
in spirit, it affirmed a sweetly melancholy dawn-of-the-machine-age mood...
yet I knew nothing about this little pocket. And given that the dime-a-dozen
persistence of flat roofs and plain surfaces in Polish small-dwelling
construction extended (with mixed-to-wretched results, or maybe not)
well into the 1980s, who knew anything anymore. But, passively speaking,
I wanted to know more, even if I was impaired by a language barrier and
lack of adequate resources --and then, the fact of lost love which, for
an eternity, somewhat psychologically distanced me from the "old country"
and a lot of other positive initiative besides...
Well, what do you know. At the same time I discovered who my fantasy daughter
was, I discovered what this neighbourhood (whose name barely if at all lodged
in my mind) was. Browsing my newly purchased copy of East European Modernism:
Architecture In Czechoslovakia, Hungary, And Poland Between The Wars
(Rizzoli 1996), I read the following paragraph in Wojciech Lesnikowski's
However, gradually and unavoidably the Polish approach to urbanism moved away
from the English and German picturesque and French formality toward Dutch and
German functionalism. Among many examples of this new approach, the garden
suburb of Krakow, called Cichy Kacik, built during the late 1930s for the
Saving Institution of Krakow, is particularly accomplished. Planned and
designed by architect Waclaw Nowakowski, it demonstrates how far the integration
of functionalist planning and functionalist architectonic ideas progressed in Poland.
Could this be the one? Happily, the municipal website for Krakow contains
the "official" city map online with a Mapquest-style zoom'n'scan function.
So I zoomed and scanned my way to this neighbourhood and discovered that the
street name dead centre within the wishbone was... Cichy Kacik.
Cichy Kacik, and Christina Aguilera. Two discoveries. Two explosions. Two towers.
The melancholy haunt of the fairest of my seasons. In the fall of 2002, it's
as much a bittersweet boulevard-of-broken-1984-dreams heartbreak as Walter
Mondale's fleetingly failed senatorial comeback. This is what it sounds like
when doves cry...
But still --a fantasy daughter? Especially using an icon so crass?
A perverse, not to say perverted, insult... or simply a mind-boggling ne
plus ultra extension of boomer/Xer midlife-crisis reflectiveness? It
certainly breaches a frontier for treacherous high concept --especially
given the path followed. For an attempted means of healing, this cure
might be far worse than the symptom. Tribute gone awry.
Especially when it's unapologetically 2002-style Xtreme-Xtina,
rather than the 1999 "Genie In A Bottle" sweetums.
Though if we allow for the "fantasy daughter" as an acceptable if novel
psychoanalytic exercise, there's potential for a real intellectual argument
--which Aguilera, the 1999 or the 2002 model, is the more perverse choice?
Perhaps 1999, in its pathetically puerile way, is more perverse... and it's
also why Britney doesn't work at all in this context...
At least the 2002 model Aguilera confronts the fantasy daughter
idea head on, turns it upside the head --she's a very anti-fantasy
sort of fantasy. She inspires awe, or maybe sublime horror, but
not insipid warmth. She's what a dad wants. She's what a dad
who never got the chance to be a dad (and it's probably just
as well) wants. And in poetic, aesthetic dissonant harmony
with 1984 Poland, too, where what remained of the wacked-out
aesthetic spirit of 1919 remained ever-sensuously palpable.
The summer of 1984 is such a long time ago, even if a hauntedness
renders the events of that season artificially immediate...
And in a strange way, Aguilera's being steeped in 2002-style
senescent-Warholiana Ameri-popcult crassness, that decadently
debased rendition of what stood in 1984 or 1966, enhances that
sublimely neurotic state of 1919ness. There's no longer the
innocent Pop Art gaiety of old, no more joie de vivre. It's
only the disillusioning in-denial havoc of a universally popular
media machine gone out of control. Yet havoc still begging to be
confronted…and surfed. And the act of surfing consumes the surfer.
It's a deliberate degradation of one's own integrity. It's wild,
masochistic pleasure; all forces collide and explode and spew balls
of fire. And it's even more of a giddy adrenaline rush today than
in 1984 or 1966, believe it or not. It's why not only Xtina but
Britney, too, are more iconically electrifying than pre-Y2K icons
of pop vacuity like Princess Di. Something's changed, and we still
haven't grappled what that something is...
So, "that's my girl", with piercings in whatever Kosciuszko Mounds she
deems appropriate. Not that I'd wish that upon any real daughter I'd
have; but under the circumstances, she's better than a real teenage
daughter could hope to be for me today. Pure Krakow Tendaberry.
Yet… even allowing for artistic license, how could a series of essays devoted
to 9-11 eventually warp and drool and smear into this kind of
curriculum-vitae-busting Aguileran-Krakowian fantasy-daughter cacaphony?
Well, like, duh. Blame 9-11.
...finished Remembrance Day, 2002