Jewel’s Perfect Teeth

I just finished dancing around my room listening to the 1995 album, Pieces of You, by Jewel, and I feel exhilirated. It was just a year ago that I was finally forced to admit my appreciation of pop music, and less than eleven months since I finally knowingly listened to a Lady Gaga song. Lately I’ve recovered an awe of how great the music was in the ’90s, and it’s on this ground that I’ve been able to return to an old guilty love affair of mine, the debut album of the pop star from Alaska with the crooked teeth who would soon become a flash in the pan.

Pieces of You is the quintessence of its genre, and as perfection would imply, offers absolutely nothing new to the form it renders so well.

Listening to it again, I’m struck to rediscover what made me play this album over and over again my first year of highschool. It’s not the musical clarity or the romantic earnestness, though both are necessary accompaniments. It is, in fact, the unformed, idealistic, but nonetheless radical rebellious critique that lies at the heart of its better songs. The message is prepolitical, underdeveloped, but clear and undiluted, and that’s exactly what spoke to the part of me that would become, that already was, an anarchist.

People living their lives for you on TV

they say they’re better than you and you agree

[…]

Another day another dollar another war

another tower went up where the homeless had their homes

[“Who Will Save Your Soul”]

In a rudimentary but unmistakeable way, Jewel excoriates the world we inhabit for its spiritual poverty, while at the same time rejecting religion (“so afraid that God will take his toll that we forget to begin”). In a song that criticizes morality, the police, work, leisure, the media, it may not be an exaggeration to interpret the line “Who will save your soul, if you won’t save your own?” as analytically equivalent to the anarchist slogan of a hundred years ago, “The liberation of the workers is the task of the workers themselves.”

Other songs on the album speak out against beauty standards, homophobia, sexism—the song “Little Sister” draws a connection between drug addiction, consumerism, and alienation—but Jewel’s perfect childishness steers her clear of the propagandist pamphleteering and directionless sarcasm that defeated the majority of the punk music of that decade.

I remember hearing from my closest friend at the time how Jewel had horribly crooked teeth and she refused to get them straightened, like the record label wanted. It was obvious to us that this was her dearest feature.

But I soon forgot about Jewel. Her place in my heart was taken by Ani DiFranco, and then by musicians I’m not ashamed of. Ani DiFranco makes an interesting contrast. She is recognizably political, her feminism is more intelligent, and this many years later she remains committed to the positions that first made her famous. But at the same time, those recognizable politics were always there, of her own making, to mediate any rebellion she might have sparked; Ani DiFranco never ventured into more rebellious territory than that of G.I. Jane, so it’s laughably perfect that she ends up in bed with her polar opposite, Eminem, using her music to get out the vote against conservative politicians in the 2008 elections.

Jewel, on the other hand, much less sophisticated, is intuitively right on. Lacking any recognizable political position, her unadulterated rebelliousness senses just what’s wrong with the world, and she points it out. She doesn’t have complex language to describe it, and no real suggestions for what to do about it, but she is unable to replace one mask with another. In my fantasy world, Jewel is unable to recuperate herself; she can only destroy herself.

Once I see her face on a huge sign outside Tower Records, advertising her next album, all glitzed up, she is dead to me. I imagine the personality evident in Pieces of You steadily becoming disenchanted with itself, its straightened teeth and carefully managed appearance abhorrent, its life’s work meaningless. I imagine her dropping out and disappearing after just one more album.

There’s something beautiful about that trajectory, some similarity to the story of King Midas, but with a reluctant lover of his as the protagonist. In the war of cultural production, the victims are much more beautiful than the traitors or the reformers. The so-called true artists are too delicate for the meat-grinder of the culture industry, and after they fall to pieces capitalism has to search about for the next raw material.

I’m thoroughly disappointed to find out, years later, that Jewel only disappeared from my world, and not from the world stage. That in the end, she was tough, and innovative, and compromising. Capitalism’s capacity for redemption is almost limitless—this is in fact one of its points of conflict with the State structures it relies on. In exchange for her participation in the commercialism and official rituals she condemns in her debut (she would go on to sell millions more records and sing the national anthem for the Super Bowl) she is offered a pseudo-community among the creative class, and opportunities, via her newfound wealth, to do right by founding an NGO and generating money to fight breast cancer and help poor communities around the world get access to water. Critics claim her music shows stylistic development, and it pampers consumer expectations enough to go platinum, but it lacks that naïve spark of honesty that shone out in her first songs.

I’m reminded of Against Me!, who had the grace to start sucking once they sold out. As a band they just can’t fake it: after Reinventing Axel Rose they spent two albums working through an existential crisis—their sense of guilt and meaninglessness—and now they’ve come full circle as punk grandfathers, dribbling out some senile admonition about “When I was yer age…” and yelling at us whippersnappers to come back and listen to the end of their inane story. The next time someone writes a comprehensive history of punk rock, Against Me! should constitute the final chapter. Moving beyond the frozen, eternalized commercial posture of the Sex Pistols, they represent evolution, the end of the dialectic, coming of age.

It’s heartening, actually, to see how everything capitalism touches turns to shit. AK Thompson, writing in the last issue of Upping the Anti, argues that in fact capitalism’s ability to co-opt countercultural expression is limited. I would agree and strike off in a different direction to say that cultural creation is fundamentally at odds with cultural production, and that we as rebels sit right next to the mouth of that cornucopia, that fountain of youth that capitalism always seeks and can never find. Those who do find it come towards us. Yet somehow, we almost never meet. Instead, they fill up their cup, fail to notice us or stay and chat a while, and then they trot back to the Market, where what they have is quickly spent on a system parched and desperate for vitality.

Creation is a fundamentally rebellious act. There will always be new artists who call attention, in the simplest of terms, to the poverty of existence within this system. And nearly all of them will sell out, because that is what artists do. The very best will be crushed by the culture industry. They will lose faith in their life’s work, they will burn out, and if they have any fortitude, get a job in a restaurant or a garage; if what they have instead is honesty, they’ll kill themselves.

I have to admit I don’t fully understand what this means for an anarchist struggle. My mind keeps straying from the more serious questions of co-optation, of cultural defection, of the contingencies that determine the resonance of radical messages, of the possible centrality of bravery and cowardice in explaining the actions of the millions who buy a record but would never be consequential, would never be true, to their own passions.

I keep turning back to a childish fantasy that would overtake me, all those years back, when I’d listen to that album, of—I know, I know, this is trite—meeting Jewel, telling her I understood, and letting her know her crooked teeth were beautiful. But isn’t it the very promise of meeting that keeps the culture industry running, that hooks the artist as much as the consumers, guaranteeing the one an audience and the others the words they lack? How much of a sucker am I to feel sorry for someone like Jewel, trapped in an industry that makes the meeting, the overcoming of alienation, which she evidently also yearned once, impossible?

There are plenty of musicians who come from within our circles and play just for us to the very end, but that doesn’t at all address what is lacking here. What’s more interesting, in relation to the topic at hand, is how instinctual desires bring many artists in the direction of social rebels (the true artists searching, the careerists faking), but the Market deflects them just as they get close. They’re offered a larger audience, and we reject them for completing the role we already expected of them. Selling out is a narrative whose realization is encouraged by capitalism and by anarchist purism alike. But if what we want is not a world full of anarchists, if anarchy is distinct from the generalization of anarchism, then why can’t we accept those with superficial politics, if they’re good musicians and some of what they say expresses our own feelings? The truth is, we live in a world of crooked teeth, and there is something worthwhile in seeing our existence reflected in broader society, especially given a climate of isolation.

First, the Spectacle ignores what threatens it, and if this ceases to function, it recuperates it. But too often, anarchists have a victimistic approach towards recuperation. I have never seen a convincing argument that recuperation can function without the participation of that which is recuperated. Unless I’m wrong, that would mean that no musician with a superficial analysis could recuperate anarchist politics. If they popularized their version of rebellion, they would just make us look stupid, but that would only be a concern to us if we weren’t doing anything else to counter such an image.

In other words, pop musicians should not be measured by their proximity to an anarchist ideal but by their distance from the mindnumbing standard in pop music. Therefore, when Radiohead (brilliant fucking musicians) speaks out against intellectual property and releases an album of theirs for free, we have every reason to be excited. When Chumbawumba sings, “give the anarchist a cigarette,” or brings a fugitive from the law up on stage, that, in fact, is pretty effing sweet. And when Broken Social Scene donates the money from a concert to anarchists facing trial, they’re being reasonably down.

To suggest they be held to different standards than, say, Chomsky (who presents himself as a theorist) when judging the superficiality or profundity of their analysis, is tantamount to validating specialization in human vocations, though I think even a primitivist would choose not to hear Noam Chomsky sing or Thom Yorke deliver a speech on capitalism. The main problem with the critique of specialization is that it fabricates human societies in which no specialization existed, and fails to make a distinction between specialization and professionalization, but that’s the topic for another essay.

The point that we’re come to in the consideration of this business with the musicians is whether popular musicians present a danger (I argue that they do not, because we would have to participate in a recuperatory process and we’re all too smart for that) and whether there is a benefit in them expressing radical sentiments at a simple or superficial level (I argue that there is, both because it feels good to exist outside our political enclosures, and because it beneficially alters the context in which we elaborate our discourses, creating more common reference points and a sort of protoplasm for a rebellious ethos).

If this line of argument is not tragically flawed, then is there a possibility for encouraging defections within the culture industry, a possibility for meeting those who come to this unruly fountain of life for their inspiration, before they are diverted, offered their fake audiences and their marionette NGOs?

What would such a meeting look like and in what circumstances would it become possible? What kind of strength do we need to build up in order to encourage cultural defection, to offer something that the promise of a career couldn’t shine a light to? If we could hold a street party all day long, or occupy a huge concert hall, could we get the ghosts of Jewel and Against Me! to come sing to us?

My thirteen-year-old heart is beating like a bird in its cage.

I was thinking that it might do some good

if we robbed the cynics and took all their food

that way what they believe will have taken place

and we’ll give it to everybody who has some faith

[“I’m Sensitive”]

Love You Too Much

Hope the rising black smoke carries me far away and I never come back to this town again

The gnostic priests of Capital, who wish to see in everything only their imperfect, evil God, can nail down the torrential force of romantic love within their flat cosmology by referring it to the nuclear family, which exists only to reproduce labor power, and thus will disappoint the desires that justify it; or they can claim, and not without evidence, that love has been commoditized, and the consumption of a commodity extinguishes its value and produces, again, disappointment. But they are as inadequate as their nemeses, the priests of the Market, who assure that every ill will be worked out by an Invisible Hand. Capitalism’s effect on the emotions is nearly always dulling. The anticlimax of Christmas, that most condensed gifting and extinguishing of commodities, does not lead to bloodbaths, but to boredom. The violence born of love does not climax in the formation of the family, as it would if its cause were the inability of a labor-power factory to satisfy human emotion, but accompanies it every step of the way. To understand the wrath that hides behind the mask of that most tender sentiment, we need to seek out older, more jealous gods.

Perhaps it is the way pop music conditions our expectations that kept me from realizing, at first, that Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie” (featuring Rihanna) is not a macho glorification of domestic violence but rather one of the few honest love songs to ever top the charts.

It’s an easy song to hate or to fear, because it protagonizes someone who beats his partner, and climaxes with the following lines:

Next time I’m pissed
I’ll aim my fist
At the dry wall
Next time
There will be no next time
I apologize
Even though I know it’s lies
I’m tired of the games
I just want her back
I know I’m a liar
If she ever tries to fucking leave again
I’mma tie her to the bed
And set the house on fire

Rihanna, singing the chorus, responds periodically with:

Just gonna stand there
And watch me burn
But that’s alright
Because I like
The way it hurts
Just gonna stand there
And hear me cry
But that’s alright
Because I love
The way you lie
I love the way you lie

The song follows a moral compass that unequivocably signals domestic violence as wrong. But it also presents such violence as an inevitable tragedy, which the beater as much as the person beaten reproduces. The song itself explains their love as an irrational, overpowering addiction.

I can’t tell you what it really is
I can only tell you what it feels like
And right now there’s a steel knife
In my windpipe
I can’t breathe
But I still fight
While I can fight
As long as the wrong feels right
It’s like I’m in flight
High off a love
Drunk from the hate
It’s like I’m huffing paint
And I love it the more that I suffer
I suffocate
And right before I’m about to drown
She resuscitates me
She fucking hates me
And I love it
Wait
Where you going
I’m leaving you
No you ain’t
Come back
We’re running right back
Here we go again
It’s so insane

I can’t remember if it was the comparison to addiction or the line “I love you too much” that forced me to recognize this song had more validity than my fears wanted me to admit. It’s a commonplace that songs on the radio pine “I can’t live without you,” “I never want to leave your side,” and other statements of absolute codependency that decorate the elaborate myth of romantic love, in which two people complete each other in a static and unending congruity. How many of these songs are honest enough to mention the abuse that logically accompanies this kind of love?

It was the look in his eyes as he beat her. As though his dearest illusion had shattered, and he had snapped with it. She wasn’t his, she never had been, and she never would be. Up until now, she had chosen to accompany him, and after today, clearly, she would not. “Whatever happened to ‘Until death do us part’?” he muttered confusedly, on one of the few occasions he ever talked about it with me. He didn’t understand the kind of love that changed, the kind that was contingent on choice.

I continued to love them both, not with the propietary love of a husband or a mother, but with the love of a child who wants everyone to be okay. By loving them I learned a number of things. I learned that she was strong, that we may not get to choose if we get beaten, but we can choose whether we become victims, or whether we walk out. She never hated him, either, but unlike Rihanna’s character in the Eminem song, her sympathy was not a weakness, not a resignation to being abused. I also learned from her that abuser and survivor are flexible categories, that one is very likely to become the other, and therefore neither of these can define someone. Someone who has been hurt very often wants to hurt others, or to turn them into protective appendages. The patriarchy I grew up in never taught me that my gender entitled me to abuse without being abused. What I was taught is that you gotta pay your dues.

And what I learned from him is that his story was also important. He was not evil, but hurt. What happened in that cold family he never talked about? He was clearly scarred. Now I was too. I was sure that I would be much better than him. I wasn’t entirely correct. The story that’s never spoken is sure to be repeated. Hate it, fear it, ban it from the radio. It’s going to come back around.

A singleminded critique of capitalism cannot possibly explain the vehemence of love, and must neglect love’s central role in perpetuating the harm we do to ourselves. Love is something more than desire and its misplaced satisfaction in commodity form. But the traditional understanding of patriarchy, as a hierarchical system with men dominating women, is also inadequate, because love is also something different than hierarchy. Love does not end in the domination of the other but in the mutual destruction of self and other. Its most uncensored expression is the murder-suicide.

N was starting to lose it. S became the object of his obsessions. They had been comrades and lovers. Once it got undeniably unhealthy, she ended it. But he couldn’t walk away. He became unhinged, but she refused to call the police, because she cared about him, and hated the state. The rest of us couldn’t provide the support they both needed, neither the friendship that would have given him the strength to heal, nor the accompaniment that would have saved her. I lived in a different town: that was my excuse.

One night he killed her, walked up the hill to watch her house burn down, opened his wrists, and spilled his guts out on the ground in front of him.

I understood those who hated him for it. But I couldn’t find it in myself. He already hated himself enough, and that was the part that finally triumphed.

In our society, love is the perfect mask for self-hatred. I don’t believe that self-hatred is a product of capitalism, but an inevitable companion to the anguish of living. However, work, politics, colonialism, deforestation, and the patriarchal family give us many more reasons to hate ourselves. And they deprive us of means to heal ourselves. Strength is collective property. No one is alone. The illusion of individuality, where it succeeds, leaves us constantly bleeding. All the nodes on our body that connected us with the world—my hand that gripped yours, my lips that kissed his, my feet that held up the earth, my lungs that traded secrets with the leaves in the trees, my belly that was a furnace transmuting one living thing into another—become open wounds.

By promising us one intimate relation with another being, they in fact take away all those other relations, and they produce a silence that exiles us into one another, often destroying the affection of the couple by demanding the world of it. When the opium must also be food and water and shelter, the user destroys, ultimately, her love affair with the opium as well.

Patriarchy doesn’t reproduce itself as a hierarchy, but as a network. What will be most hard to accept, and most easily dismissed as a dangerously sexist idea, is that it is a fully participatory enterprise.

Some patriarchal societies have practically imprisoned women. Others, such as ours, offer mobility. What contradicts the theory of a hierarchical patriarchy is that whether or not a society offers this mobility, most people still don’t walk out. Regardless of whether a woman would get stoned for leaving her husband, or whether she’d be able to get a job and an apartment, the abusive relationships don’t end. Because they are not predicated on enforcement. The content of the gender roles differ wildly from one patriarchy to the next, and although a duality and some kind of privileging of the male half are features common to all of them, the means of enforcement, and even the availability of centralized coercion to enforce these roles, are inconsistent. The universal feature that could guarantee the reproduction of these roles with or without enforcement is their complementality.

You’re the same as me
But when it comes to love
You’re just as blinded

Patriarchy would either have aborted capitalism or been abolished by it long ago if its functioning required that any power or autonomy remain in the hands of its male half. Capitalism can brook no independence. No radical feminist can deny this. Yet a misunderstanding of privilege has done everyone a disservice, by painting women as too weak to break out of this system if they actually wanted to, and men as the monsters who keep the whole thing going. Privilege means, among other things, that male perspectives and experiences are the default, but this could only be possible within an oppressive system if it were impossible for men to live within their own prescribed experiences. In other words, male perspectives are the default, but they do not belong to or serve the interests of those categorized as male.

And this is exactly how it works. As an oppressive network system that supplements structurally enforced hierarchies (such as capitalism and the State), patriarchy functions like an addiction, by fostering dependency, casting incomplete parts to seek completion in an impossible way, and in so doing to articulate a web of mutual theft or destruction of value. It is, if you will, a scarcity machine, in which people keep the treadmills running by stealing from those closest to them to fill their own holes, like four people in a bed with a blanket big enough for two. Love is this machine’s dynamo. Its violence arises when people can’t live without exactly what is destroying them, when one thinks he is completing another and actually he is filling up his hole by eviscerating the other.

You ever love somebody so much
You can barely breathe
When you’re with them

I told her from the beginning that I didn’t think monogamy was healthy in a romantic relationship, at least for me. She considered this an unhealthy, selfish attitude. Consequently, she was always right, or at least excused, when she looked through my address book, read my old love letters, searched the files on my computer, screamed at me, in order to discover my infidelities. And when she broke the rules she herself had laid down, it was only an error caused by the stress of loving a selfish bastard. Our own imperfections are always easy to understand.

How long it took me to discover that healthy love is only possible when we take responsibility for our own emotions—expropriate them from these networks of codependency, as it were. And in fact I can be most grateful to the lovers who treated me like shit, for teaching me this. They took good care of themselves. Beyond that: “If we meet, it’s marvelous. If not, that’s alright.” I could either choose to take care of myself, and not demand anything of others but what they gave as a gift, or I could choose to be a victim. I chose the former, and our love existed where we coincided. When we stopped coinciding, we went our separate ways, each stronger and wiser.

We love in order to destroy ourselves, and build ourselves back up again, a heartbroken friend tells me in a moment of hope.

Despite her more herculean vocals, Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You” is tawdry next to Dolly Parton’s original. This may in fact be a result of Houston’s earthshaking glottal vibrations actually drowning out the quieter sentiments that make this song so beautiful. Parton’s romantic love is perhaps the only kind that truly can live forever, because it is the love of a memory, the love for a person who is totally independent, totally safe from that love, because they have already left.

Once the affair is over, we’re free, until the end of our days, to think about the person we loved, to care about them, to wish them well, to wonder what part of ourselves must be broken that it turned out this way, to malign the nature of our love that it became a weapon against our lover; where it should have completed, it only hurt and controlled, and we will never be able to make it right, nor reconcile the sincerity of the concern we feel for that person with the damage we caused in the intensity of our passion. Perhaps the best way to go on loving them is to love the next person better.

Both the idea of romantic love and many of the radical responses to its inevitable abuses are implicitly predicated on the idea of human fragility.

Love runs perpetually from a fear of loneliness, but only by embracing this loneliness and—not conquering it; it will never be conquered—make our peace with it, can we love not as a parasite but as one creating a joyous project among companions. Accountability, meanwhile, often unknowingly fosters moral and judicial frameworks of blame. In this paradigm, pointing out that patriarchy is participatory will be interpreted not as the first step towards a strategy of liberation, but as blaming the victim.

This defensiveness is perfectly understandable, given how judicial processes impose themselves on us, and in these processes the person with less social privilege usually takes the blame for whatever disorder has interrupted the illusion of social peace.

But if what we are setting up is not a courthouse but a commune, a conspiracy among friends, the embodiment of our dreams, we have to permit ourselves to talk about things that could never be said in a society in which “everything you say will be used against you.”

One of these unmentionables is that sometimes we choose to be abused. Sometimes it feels good. Sometimes we “like the way it hurts.”

As we move from a world of imposed desires and addictive relationships to one in which relationships express our paradoxical agency and independence as subjects of the world and interlaced hubs in a network of mutual aid, play can be as important a tool as destruction.

Patriarchy is a game that solidified and forgot its own rules. Queer theory and some of the libertarian psychologists who preceded it have taught us that suppressing what troubles us only perpetuates it. By playing with power dynamics, playing with pain, even playing with torture, we make them our own, and we can make them harmless to us.

We are not so fragile that by having our partner tie us up and having her whip us or choke us with a dildo we lose something to her, we become dominated.

A consensual scenario is a world apart from an abusive relationship, but the hidden connection between the two, and the one thing that would allow us to move from the latter to the former, is that in both situations we have agency, whether we recognize it or not, and that our own desires may well be contradictory and frightening.

Compare the Eminem song to “Kiss with a Fist” by Florence and the Machine. Though the singer croons that “A kiss with a fist is better than none,” and, just like Eminem, promises to set her lover’s bed on fire, only a dogmatic second-waver could claim “Kiss With a Fist” is a fucked up song that apologizes for abuse or victimization.

I broke your jaw once before

I spread your blood upon the floor

you broke my leg in return

so I sit back and watch the bed burn

love sticks, sweat drips,

break the lock if it don’t fit

[“Kiss With a Fist”]

The Eminem song frightens us because it protagonizes the batterer, and to a lesser extent also the survivor who chooses to remain. It refers to emotions all of us have felt, and thus forces us either to reject it as incorrect, or to acknowledge our own capacity to abuse or to choose to be abused, without judgment.

By suspending judgment, or at least mixing it with sympathy, the song creates the possibility of learning from a seemingly incurable situation. Judgment makes learning impossible. The judge is the greatest fool in the statist pantheon, because one cannot learn from those one condemns.

The picture painted in “Love the Way You Lie” reveals the violence of love not as a hierarchy but as a cycle. Perhaps what is needed to change this cycle is the recognition that abuse is a function of dependency and nowadays dependency is perfectly normal, but it is also an expression of our individual agency; what we need is no less than to be exceptional.