Thursday, August 21, 2014

Katy Perry's Binding of Isaac

It was early in the morning, Abraham arose betimes, he had the asses saddled, left his tent, and Isaac with him, but Sarah looked out of the window after them until they had passed down the valley and she could see them no more. They rode in silence for three days. On the morning of the fourth day Abraham said never a word, but he lifted up his eyes and saw Mount Moriah afar off. He left the young men behind and went on alone with Isaac beside him up to the mountain. But Abraham said to himself, "I will not conceal from Isaac whither this course leads him." He stood still, he laid his hand upon the head of Isaac in benediction, and Isaac bowed to receive the blessing. And Abraham's face was fatherliness, his look was mild, his speech encouraging. But Isaac was unable to understand him, his soul could not be exalted; he embraced Abraham's knees, he fell at his feet imploringly, he begged for his young life, for the fair hope of his future, he called to mind the joy in Abraham's house, he called to mind the sorrow and loneliness. Then Abraham lifted up the boy, he walked with him by his side, and his talk was full of comfort and exhortation. But Isaac could not understand him. He climbed Mount Moriah, but Isaac understood him not. Then for an instant he turned away from him, and when Isaac again saw Abraham's face it was changed, his glance was wild, his form was horror. He seized Isaac by the throat, threw him to the ground, and said, "Stupid boy, dost thou then suppose that I am thy father? I am an idolater. Dost thou suppose that this is God's bidding? No, it is my desire." Then Isaac trembled and cried out in his terror, "O God in heaven, have compassion upon me. God of Abraham, have compassion upon me. If I have no father upon earth, be Thou my father!" But Abraham in a low voice said to himself, "O Lord in heaven, I thank Thee. After all it is better for him to believe that I am a monster, rather than that he should lose faith in Thee."

Blood is thick but
God is thicker

Musically, Katy Perry's "Unconditionally" does three things that, with my infantile grasp of music and its theory, I find both compelling and, in at least an elliptical way, articulable. They are:
  1. The sparse opening, which consists memorably only of a squelch at the end of each bar;
  2. The inclusion, halfway through each verse, of drums which, set against this sparse backdrop, resemble nothing so much as worship music; and
  3. un-,kun-dish-'shun-ul
Four years ago, of Perry, I wrote:
[W]hat is really remarkable about Perry's music is that it, while in the middle of presenting all of these fantasies about becoming consumable, buries deep within itself the vicious pain that this process involves. Think, for instance, of her endless choruses, especially the one in California Gurls, that always end up with Perry basically wailing inarticulately. If it weren't for the massive amounts of work done in post-production, from structural shaping to lathered-on AutoTune, what we would have as the core of this song would be simply Katy Perry screaming.
That she had previously worked as a church singer was something, even then, of which I was aware. But it predated, I think, the thread in her work that would bear out that connection. That didn't really codify, at least as far as I can tell, until "Wide Awake." With "Unconditional" she has reached that strange status where she gets as much praise from Christian blogs as she does condemnation for being a product of MK Ultra. That 'wailing,' however, remains.

Which, among other things (including, incredibly importantly and in a way I can find no other space in which to claim, the bodily (read, vocal) pleasure of the song lies), is where the third presses itself as a point important to the diachronic reading of Perry. That she shifts the Dish out of view for the Shun might be a fun instant, but it is the way that, characterologically, we might classify as restraint that which, lacking such a situated abstraction, would certainly be nothing less than an embarrassing overzeal that (and again, hidden in the aside: one potential ending here is simply "makes this so enjoyable to scream/sing along to") impresses itself, moves this song beyond the pleasure of confirmation and into the pleasure of living time.

Here, then, is the second point, on which I will not linger. Like no other artist, Katy Perry is, for me, full of dread. From the instant that sexual performativity becomes the origin of the character, who nevertheless insists quietly on the worshipful backstory and normative identity, everything bleeds. That this is nothing more than the status quo, a story of the individual in the stead of the (material) universal, is, for a situated abstraction, only reinforcing.

Dread is, of course, a convenient lie.


My two favorite songs by The Residents, probably, are both off Wormwood. One, unfortunately, is the studio version, while the other is on the live album; what's relevant here, however, is that neither of them are "KILL HIM!"


Another, earlier contemner of the world, who said that he had been a king in Jerusalem, had touched on the heart of the problem, almost with these very words: The spirit whirls in all directions, and on its circuits the spirit returns. All revolutions go down in history, yet history does not fill up; the rivers of revolution return from whence they came, only to flow again.

The moment comes at the end of the second verse, the last before the song enters the chorus-bridge-chorus endgame; it's The three words, but it is Them in repetition. It is, more than anything, the (tellingly) unnecessary emphasis, the sudden obliteration of the possibility of cordial conversationalism. The lie is given in ostensible service of an intensification: "(I do it all because) I love you. I LOVE YOU."

The line itself is, in its performance and in its familiarity, out of joint in time (or, at least, tense); what is there is a phrase of having done, of having been. Did, there, can be sympathetic, or comical, because it allows the slightest distance in the midst of the outburst. Do, baldly, is a threat.
And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

Dread is, among other things, the way that Kierkegaard, in Fear & Trembling, indexes the specificity which marks, finally, Abraham, during the binding of Isaac, as the father of faith. It is, among other things, what separates him from the ordinary individual who, rather than paradoxically transcending the universal by achieving the individual through it, simply transcends the individual into the universal.

And so the lie; because what that emphatic repetition reveals is that Perry sings from the point of view of the knight of faith, Abraham.

There is, of course, the immediacy; where the bridge becomes what it was meant against, where "open up your heart and just let it begin" is not an exhortation but, suddenly, like "what's really on the inside," is tangible. That is -- it is a promise, in the figure of a knife.

To begin his text, Kierkegaard, pseudonymously, critiques his work, and then offers it; but before he gets into Reason, he offers a small fable, in which a man imagines possible iterations of the story of the binding of Isaac. This, too, then, begins with one imagining. What Kierkegaard accomplishes is not the vaunted toolbox, but the ellipse, the endless working around the issue that speaks it in a way unavailable to the declamation.

What Perry accomplishes, as she subsumes the knight of faith in point of view, is pain. What this means is an emptiness, a figuring of the shifting of signs and the laborious (re)production of bodies as affective; what it does is to fill space in which screaming & singing is done.