Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Rock and Roll Done Right: Nostalgia with Chris Cunningham and Courtney Love

I had almost forgotten my old tastes in music before I ran across the two videos I saw last week, minor but strangely poignant clips from creative minds that I greatly respect. I had forgotten what it feels like to look into the cultural slipstream and see how history flows through us, from the past into the future. And I had mostly forgotten about Chris Cunningham and Courtney Love, before these two videos turned up and reminded me how interesting they always were.

The first one was Chris Cunningham's beautiful, subdued, abstract visual piece, exhibited this past month at the MoMa. It's called New York is Killing Me, and it's an audio-visual remix of a song by Gil-Scott Heron. The original was a multi-channel work, shown on three screens simultaneously (must have been a hell of an experience). It's bluesy, and dark gritty ambient, and for some reason, I feel like the bastard child of those forms is some sort of rock and fucking roll, a kindred spirit to Joy Division. You can see a clip at Cunningham's website.

Now, this is a pretty chilled-out clip for Chris. He's famous for the ferocious, cerebral insanity of Come to Daddy and Rubber Johnny, the kind of work that makes you grit your teeth. New York is Killing Me is more of a meditation, reflecting the broader, more cunning nature of urban oppression. Gone is the twitchy, glitchy effects work, replaced with a steady hand and an eye for juxtaposition and composition. This is about the landscape, without and within the mind.

The other one, posted later in the week at The House Next Door, is a little Courtney Love moment, among her more photogenic: she sings Lady Gaga's Bad Romance to a tiny crowd in what looks like the back room of a bar. Take a look:

There are so many evocative elements and undercurrents in this video. It all adds up to something strangely beautiful in its nostalgic sincerity. Courtney is part of a whole lineage (arguably its Godmother) of female rock stars cum publicity monsters, succeeded by people like Amy Winehouse and Lady Gaga. Between Love and Winehouse, we seem to have adapted to bad behavior enough that we could laugh at Amy, whereas we tended to sneer at Courtney... and with Gaga, we have come to see outlandish public appearances as a sort of performance art. I support this. Lady Gaga is great at what she does.

But here, Courtney is not being an inane fuck-up, which is what she's arguably most famous for. Instead, she's exhibiting those things that made us appreciate her (or forgive her). She's not puking or getting naked -- she's performing a song by the new Mad Diva, obviously not completely knowing it (reminiscent of Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious), but ready to share it with the crowd she's part of. She was unstable, but this wasn't what made her great... what made her great was her work with Hole, her razor-sharp, well-written albums and studio tracks, and her general unwillingness to compromise anything about herself. Here, after Joaquin Phoenix self-destructs for show, we get a performance by the real shit, the model train-wreck.

And doesn't she look like she's having the time of her life, singing her ambivalently sarcastic tribute? When Courtney stands up and gets a ripple of love from the crowd, it's a quietly epic moment. It feels like she's bearing her soul, in the same strange, private way that Cunningham seems to be doing in his MoMa piece. These are rock and roll icons with their accolades stripped away, so we can see why they're so untouchable: because they love this shit, and they're 100% sincere about it.

There's something else about these short films: both of them remind me of New York City. The open, endless urban sprawl, interlaced with subterranean rhythms, is an essential part of the texture of Cunningham's video. Now, I know Courtney's video was shot in Paris, but it still has that sweaty, claustrophilic, center-of-the-universe sense that you get from the back room of a bar in a big city, whether it's the Givenchy Party or the Knitting Factory. So the face of the city is reflected in the faces of these artists, which is why it's such a great idea to put the right kinds of visuals with your aural stimulation.

I can watch these a bunch more times, and turn the sound up as high as it goes, and it empties me out and leaves me feeling raw and monolithic. It's good to know that Chris Cunningham is still realigning the audio-visual forces of rock and roll, and it's great to be reminded that Courtney Love's presence screams and echoes in the history of crazy bitch rock and roll. But these little intellectualizations are ultimately irrelevant... the real point is to feel the blood pumping through these media artifacts, drowning out the anesthetized world.

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