Carparts, Bottles, and Cutlery
Popcraft in the Company of Others
Robert Cashin Ryan
We are told a great many things about pop music.
That it is democratic, for instance. The music of the people, the story goes, pop music solicits us at our most basic. And perhaps because of this, we are also told that it is frivolous: tawdry and cloying, offering up the wraith-like idyll of shiny, happy people.
Faster and looser, though, we know pop music to be more than this. It is distraction and native informant, both the unwitting dupe of ideology and powerful engine of the way things are. Tipper Gore taught us that pop music poisons children and kills cops; it is riotous, indecent, exposed.
It’s likely that pop music is all these things. In its broad ambition and shape-shifting contours it becomes a cabaret of our most outrageous affects and ribald desires.
And yet pop music is also a salve, that which covers over, laments, holds us steady.
The wager here is that pop music not only offers a way to get in bed with our own emotional extravagances, but that it teaches us about them too. Resolving into nothing, the pop idiom can sharpen our otherwise groping feelings into clarifying blasts of memory and lament. Pop music, then, is also a pedagogy of the self.
I first heard Björk while laying on an undersized and rickety bed, in a damp room on a small farm in County Tipperary, Ireland. How I found myself there, for the purposes of this particular story, would be an unnecessary and moody distraction. I need only say that, a few months prior, I had suffered a tiny cataclysm in my social world. People who had been so reliably there were suddenly and worryingly not. One of adult life’s merciless movements of disintegration had torn through my nonce structures of companionship, and from this—aggressively, woefully, lustily twenty-three—I was routinely running.
My days were dislocated, temporally strange; they were not at all unbearable. Rather these days were jammed by a strange rhythm of cleaning and scraping, digging and mending, stables, pens, coops, fences. Something always seemed to be soiled, sullied. I was apart: from family and friends, habits and intention, from all those daily rituals that previously assured me I had solidity. This sense was the shattering realization that my improvised place in the world was indeed a place, that the world was in fact a world.
These hours were colored by a sort of weak messianism—as though, quite suddenly through the suspended mists and still-dampening walls, amidst the frankly belligerent array of greens and browns, might arrive some saving grace.
Instead, I had my nights.
After dinner with my host and supervisor (let me assure you, the true hero of this tale, who deserves far more than the modesty of my word limit will allow) I would retreat to my room, crawl under a pile of quilts, and draw from a prepared store of not-yet-heards.
One lucky evening, somewhere in the midst, it was Björk. More specifically, it was Post. More still, it was “Hyperballad.” I have not yet found a language to describe the moment when this song clawed its way under my skin and into my capillaries. I can only limn some particulars that only maybe and vaguely struck me then, and strike me now.
It goes like this:
A skinny attenuated tone, emerging from nothing, rounded by a clean, airy reverb. Then, a skeletal mise-en-scène:
We live on a mountain
Right at the top
There's a beautiful view
From the top of the mountain
A mountain, a view, a “we.”
At first gloss, this had nothing to do with my particular position. To start, I had no “we”: my then-relationship had already dissolved with a whisper of petulant silence. County Tipperary does not offer much in the way of mountains; and my morning view was, quite literally, piles of shit.
This sense of dislocation turns out to be foundational to the song’s ecology of relations. The “we" will be haunted by its own remove; no one exists in “Hyperballad” beyond the fraught narrative consciousness. Indeed, that kind of romantic union is immediately dispatched, skittering into a scene of singular ritual—domesticity vibrating at a perilous edge:
Every morning I walk towards the edge
And throw little things off
Like car-parts, bottles and cutlery
Or whatever I find lying around
It's become a habit
A way to start the day
A habit. “A way to start the day.” An exhausted defiance of routinized consumption: car-parts, bottles, cutlery. Indices of our time, “these modern things” as she will have it only a track later, cast purposefully away.
I go through all this
Before you wake up
So I can feel happier
To be safe again with you
As these bits travel their arc, dutifully following a gravitational pull that so easily overmasters them, they are expelled from the everyday of a shared life-at-remove. The steady hold of “we” is threatened by these disposable things, these ugly reminders of a life we have made for ourselves. And what’s worse: despite their utter disposability, they persist. I’m back at my cliff/Still throwing things off. These frivolous things purged from such a life impinge verse after verse.
This private act of refusal attempts to shore up a conjugal form threatened by the seductions and banalities of late-stage capitalism. The unnamed partner remains unconscious for the whole of the song, caught up in a relay between the world of things and the world of a love removed from such sundry indignities. It is a partnership that does not gird against the world's depredations, but rather hides from them, dodges them, steals away.
When I first heard “Hyperballad,” of course, I heard none of this. What I heard was that quavering voice over a ravey beat. I heard verse and chorus, rhythm and melody.
“Hyperballad” is a meaningful contradiction, and one that does work. It is a fitting inauguration to a publication invested in attempting to send the melancholic headlong into a sort of undone stupor. For it is that very beat—the insistence of the kick drum, that scattered and scattering snare—that grounds such a soaring melody, accelerating a mournful form. The ballad, after all, is a song of lament; made hyper, it reads like an aggrieved mourner stealing away to do blow at a funeral.
“Hyperballad” is a song about romance, sure, but it is also a song about a deeper, more foundational conflict. It is about the world we share, and how unlivable it has become. It is about the rift between the affective life of partnership and the shattering estrangement that such coupling can bring. The people left behind by the trappings of nuclear-familial aspiration, those modern yet childish things. It is a song that formalizes the extravagances of love with the commodity fetish of the everyday—it takes seriously the strange and insistent draw of crushing annihilation.
But in and despite all this—in those swift and steady reversals of popcraft—I heard something else. I heard, simply, someone else spinning out and lost in the sickly glow of our time. I heard a narrative moment held open wide: a vulnerability, a sketch of pain and contradiction and all our most unlistenable and unspeakable horrors. And so the song ends—lyrically at least—with a repetition that reads alternately as promise and desire, an attempt to word something into being: Safe again (with you), safe again (with you), safe again.