There’s a new Kendrick Lamar song today. It doesn’t feel as much like a song as a bursting forth of light and gospel and love. It’s strange, the negative reaction to it mostly harps on the earnest or innocent message he’s projecting: I love myself. As I listen, I find myself returning again and again to the excellent, illuminating essay about black self-love that fire-goddess Heben Nigatu wrote ages ago for Buzzfeed. It articulated something about Kanye’s brazen arrogance—and the backlash to it—that I had sensed or wanted to uncover for a long time.
Kendrick’s new single “i” seems to directly pick up the thread of thinking that Kanye has been setting forth in our culture. It’s couched in gospel samples and that Isley Brothers guitar line that feels like exuberance embodied. Using that sample in particular seemed fitting to me because I remember when I lived in Los Angeles feeling like those long, loopy guitar parts always /felt/ like California. There’s something so light and lithe but also deeply golden about the sound—it’s the landscape brought to life. Of course Kendrick would want to emphasize his sound regionally in that way.
I also think the song manages to dodge the critiques of overt earnest tones because of what it comes after. Because it comes after good kid maad city and the accounts of what his life has held, what he’s been through. If he can come through that whole saga and emerge on the other side with this fiery, free form of self-love, can’t we all make it through our own hells back into the light? There’s very few figures in our culture propagating self-love right now who are trustworthy or feel genuine and Kendrick feels both. It feels like he cherry-picked all the best parts of a Bible verse, took all the magic half-spells and threw out all the guilt and all the savior underpinnings and brought forth this piece of individualistic gospel.
It’s easy to like the dark things because it feels like a strange, brave dance to confront it all and pretend to be strong in the face of it. It’s hard to like the happy, bright things and see that they’re how the world actually runs. “I Love Myself” is the most radical statement a human can make in our current society. You want transgressive? This is. Imagine this same confidence in the hands and brains and hearts of everyone you know. Now, be fearless enough to help them get there. Be your own lover, your own parent, your own brightness. Exist in the fullness of your own spirit. This is what Taylor was /trying/ to do with “Shake It Off” but I personally don’t think she loves herself enough to bring something like this forth—even she needs Kendrick for that final bit of confidence.
Kendrick though, he loves himself. There’s no moral binaries, there’s no one to do it for you, there’s no other source of strength. Turn to yourself—those who don’t want you to or laugh at his decision are still searching. Be your own gospel.
1. Here is the body I’ve been refusing to hide. The urge is there. I am often embarrassed by what you see in this picture. There are so many times I look at those thighs, that belly, and those arms and I think, “How dare you force your largeness on the rest of the world.” Isn’t that fucking…
(I can take screenshots too!)
Accidentally read the Grantland essay on KKH and I was furious. Written in fury, here’s the unedited stream-of-consciousness response—my favorite kind!
Please explain to me why whatever version of Kim Kardashian that appears in her TV show is any different than the character that J. Law has latest portrayed? Why one of them gets written off as a gaming herself while the other is hailed as a great artist? “Keeping Up With The Kardashians” is art, and anyone that has ever watched and loved that show will tell you that. It has all the great elements of any classic story or epic plot—love, betrayal, wealth, power, family drama, babies, leisure—and the acting is next-level. Sure, it falls under the scope of “reality TV” but anyone who has dabbled even minorly in that genre knows that the action is just as sculpted as any film or fictional TV show. Hell, anyone who has spliced together an interview—written or on film—knows that any finished product is a simulacrum of what happened in reality.
Simulacrum. Let’s start with that while we discuss Kim, and while we discuss larger arguments about visual culture, truth and morality. By positing that Kim’s entire fucking life is a “game” as does a Grantland writer while relaying the alarming truth that he too somehow has succumbed to the succubus kiss of her must-be-terrible iphone game, we assert that most of the rest of us are not in fact playing a game. Instead, our lives are Real and True. That’s a good feeling! Thank god we’ve never gotten plastic surgery or had sex. Thank god we are Real and True and don’t plaster our lives on television. Because then we would be lesser beings, uninterested in art or the pursuit of higher truths and our lives would be A Game also.
Simulacrum is a word that Baudrillard helped popularize, whether or not he invented it. It’s a latin term that means literally a copy of a copy. The philosophical conations behind it suggest that the simulacra is twice removed from reality. Think about a painting that’s created from a photograph—that’s simulacrum. While the photograph was based on reality, it in itself is not real, and therefore, the painting is a second step removed from The Real. So we’re working with something that exists two steps away from reality. I would argue that the public persona of most celebrities is simulacrum. Most of the public’s idea about a celebrity is based on adoration for a character they played, a movie they appeared in, or other forms of intentionally simulated reality. What’s frustrating about the way our culture stands right now is that difference forms of simulated reality are given different values. There’s a whole host of reasons that play into this—money, race, tradition—but in the current moment TV is considerably low on this totem pole, with reality TV at the absolute bottom. Film is currently the highest, although when film was first introduced it was considered to be just as much of an atrocity as reality TV and shows of that ilk are now. Live theatre was the pinnacle at the time and slowly slid into the state of near disregard that it now occupies.
Now, I will state beyond a shadow of a doubt that I think “Keeping Up With The Kardashians” is art. I think it’s important art. I think we should study and apply intensive, intellectual terms to it and analyze it like other important artifacts. That’s why I’m writing this. And I’m happy that on some level, Grantland is offering a—what does he call it?—”a humorous first-person article about playing the Kardashian game.” But his reading of the game is offensively colored by his need to be a Manly Man. (Sadly enough, it’s the commentary from his wife that reads as most sexist in the article! Get rammed by Ray J for attention she suggests, why do you look like dangerous, determined sci-fi redhead “Run Lola Run” protagonist she laments. I digress.) He’s named his character what I can assume is a fairly standard name for a male RPG game? I could Google it, but I prefer not to learn about stuff men are crazy about—it irks them to no end when I don’t get their references. He suggests that the work in the game and done by the Kardashians in their simulated reality on the show isn’t real work (his lede suggests his idea of work by asserting his status as a pop culture writer and “and the lucky beneficiary of an economic system that does not require me to do hard physical work to feed and clothe my family.” Obviously the only real work comes from the hard-earned sweat of the dude-bro brow, and it must be toward the honorable feat of feeding a family!) How dare this game suggest that getting drinks with someone might rise your station in life? How dare it be that real more like.
By asserting that Kim and the rest of the Ks as he (affectionately, I’m sure) calls them don’t do real work, he is suggesting that their existence is limited to the boundaries of the show’s simulacrum. As if Kim and her bevy of family members continually operate within the strict half hour/hour confines of that show. As if the work that goes into a television show isn’t multiplied boundlessly beyond what makes it to our screen. As if existing as a real human person and getting famous from that is somehow morally reprehensible while learning the CRAFT of acting gives limitless power and appeal to people performing the exact same task for film and theatre. Something that the super brilliant Emilie Friedlander wrote in her piece about the game for Fader, one of its greatest and perhaps most alarming features is that for people like us who are embedded in the entertainment industry complex it is terrifingly close to real life. But of course, that couldn’t be a brilliant move by Kim, obviously she’s too stupid to think of that, want to recreate that, or even, how does he put it? “I approve this message” that.
It’s time to take a good hard look at yourself if you think Kim Kardashian is stupid, or that her career as “a professional celebrity” is a game. It’s time to take a good hard look at the value systems that you operate in and consider they might be antiquated and rather fucked up. It’s time to consider that the value that you bestow on Great Art was probably taught to you by other white dudes. Part of the reason this game is so brilliant is that it took a medium completely dominated by some of the most arrogant, competitive, close-minded and idiotic (sorry to guys like Yannick and my brother Zach you aren’t in this) men and took a little piece of that pie for women. It lets us obsess over outfits and try to impress unrelenting boyfriends, bosses and rivals, just like we do in real life. But instead of the utter unpredictable, devastating tragedies that real life holds, it keeps everything inside of a protective wall that lets us, if we work hard enough, maintain an idea that we achieved our best self. I do think the game has issues, and I think Emilie deftly pointed out some of its startling and harsh realities. But the best part about the game isn’t that it mimics reality, but that it mimics simulacrum. It’s a copy of a copy of reality. And it’s utterly brilliant. It is a game. Kim Kardashian, however, is not. Stop paying people write essays treating her like she is.
Ah, the best collaboration on the record, and probably Miranda’s best feature choice to date. “Smokin’ and Drinkin’” is definitely a different vibe from the first trio of songs, but while a few criticized this sequencing, I actually found it to be a nice respite from how amped up and intense the beginning of the album is. It’s true that Little Big Town have taken on a sort of slickness over their last few records, as the incredible Stephen “Tom” Erlewine pointed out in his review of the album (which I think was one of the best overall), but their second and third records weren’t really like that.
The Road to Here and A Place to Land were two of the only country records that I could bring myself to listen to in college. See, it’s nice that country is gaining some on the critical front, because for a while, if I told people I liked country they literally would stop taking me seriously. And, for a while, I let myself believe that. In Oregon it was all fine and good–country was part of the pop where I grew up—but once I hit LA I was too sick of being judged to be vocal about how much I loved country music. That even carried over when I moved to New York for the first few years, especially at the company I most recently worked at. If I told people I liked country, they would consider that a discredit of me as a person and certainly of my music taste. It was frustrating to feel like admitting I liked this genre would hold me back. So I kept my mouth shut.
But even back when it wasn’t directly affecting my career, I wanted to be cool so I only listened to LBT when I was in my car alone driving to and from my shitty summer internship at Target. Let me start by saying "Boondocks" is possibly the best country song of the 2000s, that’s for a different essay though. Even so, "Bring It On Home To Me," "Firebird Fly," "Welcome To The Family," "A Little More You"—these are songs that didn’t make it onto the radio, or at least didn’t achieve the success that LBT needed. Hence, "Pontoon," partying, and commercial success. I love it still, but it’s a departure. Ah well. That’s why I love to hear “Smokin’ and Drinkin’” though because while it has a decidedly Miranda substances-doubling/reminding-of-lovers streak in it (See: "Fastest Girl in Town," "Me and Your Cigarettes") and it feels like the older LBT sound. Their strength has always been in close-knit knock your socks off harmonies, and Lambert does an excellent job of blending her fairly distinctive voice in with their vocal meshwork. For being the big brassy diva that she is, Lambert is also really good at reeling it in, and stepping out of the spotlight—not a lot of leading ladies can pull that off. It’s also really cool that they used the vocoder effects on the vocals here, because it’s such a modern twist on a song that’s very old country song formula and nostalgic. I love that balance and it’s something that she continually does throughout this record. She blends the old and the new in a way that suggests we don’t have to choose, we don’t need to turn this into a binary thing.
I’ve expressed frustration before with a fetishization of the past that occurs in all music, but of course, it reaches a peak in country music. I think in order to move forward we have to stop making these idiotic distinctions between “authentic” and the “machine” of major label, commercial success. It’s all country music and attempting to sniff out intent is an impossible, backwards-looking task that takes away from the joy of discovering the music that’s being made right now. I’m just as interested in the sounds that are digestible and accessible to the masses as I am the songs that appeal to 100-1,000 people—I think both are worthy. Many critics disagree with me on that. In particular, I was in a discussion with one critic yesterday about the various production styles that Lambert embraces throughout the record. He wrote this off as a flaw in the record, and decried the album’s length. But I see it as strength: Miranda is an artist that appeals to the masses for a lot of her more commercially-oriented production choices that people find accessible. But by pairing songs done in that style with say, a more traditional, extremely musical song with Little Big Town (or even The Time Jumpers for God’s sake!), she’s exposing her audience to stuff they would probably never seek out on their own. It’s an excellent way to honor her heritage without insisting on making music that just doesn’t fit in with the contemporary landscape, and I think she melds the styles effortlessly.
Before I conclude this essay though I want to give a little more time to the song itself. I think the beginning is so peaceful and beautiful, but by placing the drums up so high in the mix and including the shakers it gives the feeling of a crackling, burning fire. This line: “It was one of those times when a real good time felt like a long time ago” is a stunning, painful lyric. Almost every time I have sat around a fire with family and friends, it has been one of the best memories of my life, and when she opens the song with that gap between good times, it hits right where I’m hurting. There’s not really a place for campfires and bonfires in New York City, but at home in Oregon, my parents have one in our fire pit almost every night. None of us kids are home in Oregon anymore—my brother just moved to Alaska, Natalie is in Seattle, Connor is in Philly and I’m here in New York—but drinking wine with them around that fire continues to be one of my most treasured memories. That’s just my connection, I’m willing to bet every person that hears this song has their own. If you don’t, I hope you get to feel that soon. There’s just something about sitting around a fire and fellowshiping with people you love that is irreplaceable. When she goes on about her blue jeans smelling like smoke I’m immediately taken to the day after a fire, smelling smoky clothes or hair and feeling that ache then too. The song rolls on through, bringing a romantic love story to the forefront, but for me, the love story is about my family. There’s some things I’ll never get back, and there’s probably going to be the opportunity to make more memories like that, but I man, when she says “we were young enough to not know enough / those were the days that we’re gonna miss” I want to take back every bad word I ever said about McMinnville.
And it must be a good song if it does that, because that town really does suck.
I know people think this campfire craze in country music songs is just an annoying trope, but it’s not. It’s a special, threshold place that feels like it’s own country in some ways. This song captures the weird sad tantalizing magic of sitting around a fire. For that alone I’d call Platinum a masterpiece.
This is easily my favorite song on the record. I can’t believe more people didn’t address it! I devoted practically two whole paragraphs to it in my review and that still didn’t feel like enough.
The song begins with really beautiful, light strings before it builds into the loudest, biggest song on the record. I love the trio of images she uses to build the character right off the bar—big sunglasses, Tony Lamas and Dodge Dark Classic—you immediately get a sense of who this woman is. But again, like on the whole album, she nuances it past just hot girl in love and there’s a sense of dissonance here. He only loves her for these material things? His love is only surface deep? “I’ll be Johnny and you be June / and I’ll ride with you to the moon”—and then the tone immediately changes to aggressive and almost angry, certainly someone has fed her this line before.
But when she offers the reasons he can’t ride in her “little red wagon” the limitations she lists “the front seat’s broken and the axles dragging” have the same tossed off mistruth as “I have to wash my hair.” An alternative reading: this ride is only equipped for one because she’s been hurt and badly busted up in a crash and burn before. Or another, the idea of a beloved but broken down car is a decidedly southern and down home one—you’ll even hear Andre 3000 echoing it in his Future collab "Benz Friends": you don’t leave the car that’s been with you through it all, no matter how rusty and uncool it may be. There’s a million songs about that in country music, I particularly love Dierks Bentley on the subject too.
But this song’s hook is centered around her powerful self-assertion of beauty. I think there’s often the idea that women shouldn’t be proud of how they look. That those who are somehow betray their own sex, or just come off as prideful. But with all the pressures we face to be beautiful and all the ways that the male gaze and our culture dictate that, hearing Miranda own it for herself is empowering. “You know it ain’t my fault when I’m walking jaws drop” she coos, before following it up with over-the-top renditions of “ooohs” and “ahhhs.” It’s campy and vampy enough to hearken back to Dolly & Porter Wagoner variety show antics. On a related note “you can’t step to this backyard swagger” might be my favorite crossover phrase of the country/hip-hop immersion. It’s as close to a gauntlet as we’ll get from the very pro-woman Miranda, while cheekily reminding that she’s queen of the coup. Plus whenever she channels the suburban, working-class implications of where she come from and turns it into a point of pride my heart nearly explodes out of my chest.
I think I get so caught up in the lyrical and cultural implications of this record that I keep forgetting to comment on the impeccable instrumental execution. Miranda hires musicians who enjoy playing, it comes through so clearly—on both “Platinum” and this track especially. In the musicianship, there’s a exuberant abandon that’s tempered with supreme control: the players are channeling that energy from Mirand herself. It comes through like a jolt, like the way this song feels like it’s a wagon careening on a bumpy road with a busted up axle, but it never goes quite off course. The feather-light intro leads into some growling bass and even choral, angelic harmonies—all that get gathered up in her snarled chorus—and then smoothed back out by the dainty “ooohs” and “ahhhs.” The track is overtly country through and through, so that even when synths get sprinkled in, they feel like updates on the classic structure instead of undercutting it.
My favorite part though? “I’ve got long blonde hair, and I play guitar and I go on the road, and I do all the SHIT you want to do.” That kiss off, for me, is tied directly to the song’s overarching direction: at the gravytrainers who want to get in on Miranda’s success, and probably, who try to mock her when she rejects them. The opening lines indicate they only want her for her fame and another closing line “I love my apron / but I ain’t your mama” also make me think it’s geared directly toward man-babies who think she owes them something.
"You’re just trying to slow this rolling stone but I’m onto you, babe."
Here, of course, she’s channeling Dylan-esque lyrics, and I would argue that a few elements in this track seriously remind me of some of Robert Plant’s motifs on his joint project with Alison Krauss. The beginning of this track? Those light strings practically belong on Raising Sand, and her guttural, drawn out “ooohs” channel Plant on that album’s track "Fortune Teller" both in celebration and viciousness. So she’s got traces of Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Robert Plant—three of American Music’s greatest outlaws—all mixed into her own rebellion. That’s for everyone who likes to sneer about how they only like old country, or single out only Sturgill etc as good examples of country music nowadays.
None of ya’ll are invited to ride shotgun anyway.
Do you realize that even snippets of the female voice are used to degrade us? “Platinum” begins with several clips of women talking in signature female vocal patterns. The snippets are partially obscured but here’s what we do catch: “didn’t really take me seriously,” “eye candy” and later, “I mean it kinda worked for me.” Aside from containing hallmarks modern female speech like uptalk and vocal fry, they also address the way that women are often ignored and disregarded as not serious. I always think of Dolly circa “9-5” when I hear this intro, and it comes from the same place of using perceived weaknesses as hidden strengths.
"What doesn’t kill you only makes you BLONDER" Miranda belts out on the catchy as all hell chorus. Anyone who knows anything about my professional history so far understands why this line brings me to my knees. Brutal blows can reveal to you not only your own strengths and talents, but hone them into the sharpest point, so you can attack the things you really want with aggression. I’ve yet to hear a line that sums that up for me with more spunk and delight, especially as someone who has been in a work environment where failure felt built into gender. The music industry is not a place that welcomes women, in fact, it historically chews them up and spits them out, emotionally, financially and relationally. So when Miranda posits her increase in power in distinctly feminine tropes like hair color, heels and curves, she’s using girly traits as the source of her power instead of arguing that she succeeds in spite of them, they’re how she gains strength. That’s an incredibly powerful argument.
This would be a good place to note that Miranda is happily married to a fellow country superstar, Blake Shelton. While they’re probably about equally successful technically speaking, their bodies of work have come to a similar Beyonce/Jay Z breaking point. Blake may still be commercially successful but Miranda has more than surpassed him in creativity and critical admiration. So while she’s got Blake’s money, she sure as hell doesn’t need it. “My heels and my hotels they just got taller” she notes, jacking herself up, both in a traditionally feminine way (heels) and money/power/status symbol make way (hotels). And you better be believe she highlights that “taller” with a platinum-plated vocal fry squawk that ties in the earlier elements of stereotypical female speech with a gleeful twist of the dagger.
The kicker here is this line: “When your roots grow out and things go south / hey go back to the salon.” Who do women turn to for comfort when they’re dumped, fired or depressed? Their hairstylist. When things go wrong return to the place traditionally run by women and gay men as a haven for femininity. A place laughed off and glanced at uneasily by men—the same ones who she mentions historically prefer their women with glossy, blonde blow-outs. This is also a direct refutation to the “real men” prefer blondes with curls and curves—yes she’s got em, but not by relying on men or nature to deliver them. She achieved them after losing other battles and coming back stronger, she got em by sheer force of will. She got em just to spite the things that went south (and there’s another brilliant wordplay in this line, given her heritage). “You don’t need to be a fighter honey just go one shade lighter”—you can’t dismantle the patriarchy all by yourself. But with four platinum records to her name it looks like Miranda’s bait-and-switch is working. Excuse me while I go buy some heels online and practice my vocal fry—that’s just as feminist as a goddamn lean-in. * hairflip *