Schnipper’s Slept On: Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Extended Analogies, Possibly Polemics, T-shirts, Louie CK, Warpaint

September 14, 2010

Each Tuesday, FADER editor Matthew Schnipper highlights an underappreciated release he thinks we need to know about. This week it’s kinda nothing but it’s Warpaint's Exquisite Corpse EP. Honestly, I've been listening to their new album nonstop but I guess I can't really talk about that yet because it ain't out. Weird problem to have. But an mp3 from it came out today! "Undertow," a pretty serious jam. They made an edit of it because the album version is six minutes long. Listen to that below and watch the Lollapalooza Warpaint interview referenced within to give you an idea of the vibe and the episode of Louie, too.

Download: Warpaint, "Undertow"

The problem with T-shirts is sleeves. The fit of clothes, over time, has naturally changed, the width and shape of sleeves of T-shirts going from shirt and slim to blossomy and triangular to a current general medium. The tenting of a T-shirt sleeve was once a deal breaker for me, nothing worse than two floppy pyramids starting at my shoulder and going to my elbow. And then, with all things as you age, that desire for proper sleeve ratios evaporated, replaced not only with a strong lack of interest in shape, but in an inverse interest in extremity. I’m not talking three-quarter-sleeve XXXL blousiness, but a tasteful regularity in inexactitude. Still, a softer sleeve fold is more ideal than a stiff diagonal, and the perfect little pucker is something, image-conscious or otherwise, to aspire to. Which is why I always loved Warpaint so much.

Warpaint have two singers, so they stand on the sides of the stage with their bass player Jenny Lee Lindberg in the middle. When I saw them play at Mercury Lounge a few months ago, she was wearing a red shirt, the kind of soft bright that comes from years of washing and wear. Once it had had some logo, but that was long since faded, any recycled thrift store reappropriation worn away with it. So, devoid of any purposeful subtext, she just looked cool, flag sized sleeves battered into a simple pinch and fold. And she chewed gum through the entire set. Two months later, I saw them again and she had shaved away all of her long hair except two long bits at her temples. It looked bad. But it also, because of, in spite of, both, looked perfect.

I don’t remember what she was wearing at Lollapalooza, but I remember that Lindberg, and the rest of Warpaint, came on stage laughing. It was not something they shared with the audience and there, because of the withholding, seemed devious, as though they were laughing at us. I interviewed half the band the next day. They were similarly wily, present but inattentive. They weren’t disinterested, answered my questions diligently, but gave no active concern for contributing to or prolonging any sort of entertaining dialog, essentially the point of an interview. I fell back on stock questions when the abstract wonderings fell flat to quick responses or far away stares. During their set, I saw a number of older men playing air bass. I saw a father watching with his son. I heard a very young woman in a bikini top and short shorts yell that Warpaint—all women—were fucking hot. I saw some dudes crush Bud Light empties. I saw a giant dragonfly flying above the crowd. Guitarist and singer Emily Kokal saw it, too. Between songs, she said in the microphone, Does everyone see that dragonfly?

In 1957, back when my mom was five and like a bunch of years before Mad Men and Woodstock and shit, Norman Mailer wrote “The White Negro,” a ridiculous essay about how black people go through a lot of guff and, as a result, lived with danger and violence always abutting their naturalness and the moments of escape—“jazz is orgasm”—were of a virile purity that dormant (white) people could only dream of. Mailer:

For hip is the sophistication of the wise primitive in a giant jungle, and so its appeal is still beyond the civilized man. If there are ten million Americans who are more or less psychopathic (and the figure is most modest) there are probably more than one hundred thousand men and women who consciously see themselves as hipsters, but their importance is that they are an elite with the potential ruthlessness of an elite, and a language most adolescents can understand instinctively for the hipster’s intense view of existence matches their experience and their desire to rebel. … the psychopath is a rebel without a cause, an agitator without a slogan, a revolutionary without a program: in other words, his rebelliousness if aimed to achieve goals satisfactory to himself alone; he is incapable of exertions for the sake of others.

Essentially, there is some active insane wildness in the margins of society motivating those maniacs to act strongly, but only on their own behalf and with motives of pleasure separate from a greater social good. Fine, ok, there are people who are weird artists with complex, possibly selfish motivations. And because of, basically, a long American history of extreme oppression, black people are largely susceptible to becoming these “psychopaths.” Who then have jazz orgasms that Norman Mailer thinks are totally the coolest. But because of the lack of furious strife in his and other plain white folks' lives, they will never create with similar fervor and any attempts at assimilation will make them false hipsters. Mailer:

Hated from the outside and therefore hating himself, the negro was forced into the position of exploring all those moral wildernesses of civilized life which the square automatically condemns as delinquent or immature or morbid or self-destructive or corrupt. … the cunning of their language, the abstract ambiguous alternatives in which from the danger of their oppression they learned to speak (‘Well, now, man, like I’m looking for a cat to turn me on…’), add even more the profound sensitivity of the negro jazzman who was the cultural mentor of a people, and it is not too difficult to believe that the language of hip which evolved was an artful language, tested and shaped by an intense experience and therefore different in kind from white slang … what makes hip a special language is that it cannot be taught.

And finally, Mailer does a sort of strange idolized othering where, yes, black people are different than him, but mostly because they are so cool.

Meanwhile, his buddy, cool black guy (plus gay for the double minority whammy), James Baldwin reads this shit and is like, Wow, Norman, that is some hooey. Before clowning him, he gives a very sweet disclaimer that “I have no right to talk about Norman without risking a distinctly chilling disclosure, he is very dear to me.” And then, deftly, while complimenting his novels, says that “I could not, with the best will in the world, make any sense out of "The White Negro.’” Which is, of course, hogwash, because here we are reading an essay spawned in reaction to “The White Negro.” But Baldwin only briefly, initially dispatches with the sociopolitical muck Mailer is peddling, before taking him on individually, as a writer and, more crucially, as a friend for whom he has hopes and expectations. Baldwin:

“It is still true, alas, that to be an American negro male is also to be a kind of walking phallic symbol: which means that one pays, in one’s own personality, for the sexual insecurity of others. … There is a difference though, between Norman and myself in that I think he still imagines he has something to save, whereas I have never had anything to lose. Or, perhaps, I ought to put it another way: the things that white people imagine they can salvage from the storm of life is, really, in sum, their innocence.

And, swiftly, he makes mincemeat of the lofty garbage Mailer was shilling. The rest of the happily meandering essay quotes Kerouac’s absurd monologue where he desires to be a minority (of any sort, it seems) to experience life’s true grit. But, truly, its core, is to unbalance Mailer by just calling him a dork:

“Matters were not helped at all by the fact that negro jazz musicians, among who we sometimes found ourselves, did not for an instant consider him as being even remotely “hip” and Norman did not know this and I could not tell him. He never broke through to them, at least not as far as I know; and they were far too ‘hip,’ if that is the word I want, even to consider breaking through to him. They thought he was a real sweet ofay cat, but a little frantic.

And, basically, here comes the big whopper: Norman Mailer thinks black people are cool because of all the hard knocks they’ve had. Hip black people think Norman Mailer is a good guy. But they don’t think he’s hip. That’s because he spends all his time thinking about being hip. James Baldwin says, Yeah, I’m black and much of this struggle happens across a wide plain to black people, but, dude, I’m a dude on my own and even if you are assigning me an automatic badge of hip as a positive attribute, if it’s automatic, I don’t need it, we don't need it, don’t want it and you certainly are not in a position to be doling it out. No one is. Mailer’s fault is that he is viewing what is scripted from body to body as a sum fact for all, but truly that is demeaning. Baldwin can look past it because of well-meaning and the fact that he knows Mailer is not a complete idiot, but he just wishes he’d worry about his own problems for once. Worrying about who is cool is not really a problem. And it certainly doesn’t make you cool.

What Baldwin so acutely understands is that what Mailer has defined about him and all black men is something being put upon him, something complicated and crazy. And Baldwin rejects it basically by saying “you can’t be cool just because you are black.” You can’t be cool because just because you are anything. People are very varied! James Baldwin can’t change the fact that he’s black, he was born black and it is wholly static. In a similar way, Norman Mailer can’t change the fact that he is a bloated dork. But he is spending too much time enthralled by the reasoning behind his squareness that he’s missing that it’s really endearing! James Baldwin loves you for who you are, Norman, just go with that.

I realize it may be both precarious and dangerous to copy this argument from one about race and paste it onto one about sex, but bear with me. Warpaint are women. James Baldwin is black. Both of these are important and immutable facts, though far from the total of their beings. The dialog surrounding groups that are 100% female has always been tricky: is it important or is it not? To ignore it is missing the point. To harp is missing the point. Where is the warm balance? The best answer may be in a simultaneously conscious and subconscious rejection of assumptions, to acknowledge the stereotypes and then, basically, to make fun of them.

It’s worth noting that Baldwin’s piece was published in Esquire and called, playfully, “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy.” That’s the same as chewing gum and not looking at the crowd, wearing a big, lame shirt with a fuck-off sleeve pinch. A friend works at a company with an office in New York and an office in Paris and every time he interviews a potential employee who is a woman, the French dudes ask if she is good looking. “You can’t ask that,” he says, and though it is not the point, at all, to them that is the first point. It may not be the main point, but it’s there. If he was interviewing Warpaint he would say, Yeah, sure, but they dressed like hippie hobos and didn’t look me in the eye. I don’t know the inertia for such lackadaisical coolness, if its subversion of an LA girl norm, a purposeful rejection of a norm, or if they just do not care at all about how they appear and act around other people—how we arrived at that is none of my business—but it shows up as being super cool, just like those dudes playing jazz. I realize I’m the Norman Mailer here (hopefully no mellows are being harshed, however, but I’m not in a band. I just really like bands.)

So Baldwin and Mailer were arguing about what you could not change on your body and how that dictates a huge portion of your public aura. Mailer’s crummy resistance to this was to push against his own whiteness and project his watery feelings about his privilege into some sort of web of jealousy and admiration. Baldwin was saying, just to be himself, he had to push against these outside forces constantly. Warpaint, instead of bumping up against these expectations, are eschewing them from the start. And, I know it seems a bit shallow, but I think they are doing it by looking and feeling abject.

Another band that we wrote about recently, who have all women, were concerned with how they would be photographed, represented. They did not want to be overly sexualized, reduced to being simply members of their sex with guitars and drums. This is a totally understandable qualm, but it’s the mirror image of Mailer’s accusations, and gives him undue credit and validity. Baldwin is a nimble enough writer that he could have answered Mailer with some dense bit of prose, gone one for one in an academic arena. But he tapped out, finding not showing up to a fight he never agreed to be part of a greater, more clever and ultimately more effective statement than attending and pummeling.

That wiliness is what makes Warpaint so good at being a band. It’s not only not about them being women, it’s not even about them being people at all, any tangible physicality dwarfed absolutely by inside jokes and giant drums. Their sound, at its purest, is close to the thoroughly uncool (and mostly male) genres of grunge and prog, occasionally with moments that sound close to bands like Rush or Mogwai, heavy repetition or technically effected instruments that seem out of place in any band aspiring to have any cache in 2010. Honestly, Warpaint feels like they should be really lame. And because they’ve gone so heavily over the edge, they circled right back. On the song “Beetles,” they have the lyric Fuck it, where’s my shit?/ Oh my god I’m mad at it. That’s not a lyric. That’s half a thought. But then it becomes an anthem through upending.

My father recently pointed out that I have a heavy interest in writing about what people are wearing. It’s not just in stories I write, but, for better or for worse (honestly, usually for worse), it’s something I pay close attention to. How you look is how you look. What you do with it is always an interesting choice. And those choices are so varies that where you fall on the spectrum almost invariably represents something. Wallet chain? Shaved head? Turquoise pallazzo pants? Crystal necklace? Giant Mohawk? Puffy shirt? Barbour coat? Tight jeans? Kitten heels? Lots of tattoos? All some extension of how you look, but easily molded by your own brain. For the most part, you can’t change your physical appearance but everyone has to accessorize it. Why ignore that? It’s a different analysis than fashion, but all clothing is a communication. So are all bodies. That’s the unfortunate part.

Here’s a bit of a left turn, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot and there is a connection. Maybe skip this part if you are losing patience or think I am a total dumbass. Regardless, I’ll make it quick. Anyway, comedian Louie CK has a television show called Louie which is about him being a newly divorced 42-year-old stand up comedian with two little girls trying to figure out how to date and live. Most of his comedy is pretty black (and also pretty blue), musings on how everything is pointless and after you make lots of mistakes, you’ll just die and no one will remember you. That kind of thing. But one episode, “Bully,” isn’t even jokes. (Spoilers coming). He goes on a date with a woman his own age who likes him and neither of them want it to end, so they go to a donut shop to get a coffee and donuts. Instead of getting a drink, Louie wants to bring her to an old school New York kinda place that reflects his unique spirit or whatever. They are talking nicely until a group of high school boys come in making tons of noise. Louie asks them to quiet down and the lead boy comes over and threatens Louie and makes him say that he is afraid of him, that he doesn’t want to be beat up. It is painful to watch both from our view, from within Louie’s fearful mind and, ultimately, from his date’s point of view. She says “Yeah, that was a major turnoff.” Then admits that it would have been terrible, too, if he got in a fight. So there he is, balding sort of old wimpy guy with some pudge and no real macho bone in his body, stuck. He puts her in a cab and brings her home.

But he follows the kid home, eventually to his parents’ house in Staten Island. He knocks on the door, tells his parents. They hit the kid. Seems like they always have. Louie’s pretty shocked, says that is a bad idea. They kick him out. But the dad follows him out and they share a cigarette, talk about the different paths their lives have taken, the dad saying he’s done the best he could. It is a loss for both of them, though maybe some level of understanding is achieved for both of them. But, let me make it clear, despite that, he does not get the girl. And above all, that was the point.

Should he have done anything different? He couldn’t have looked less young. He could have maybe not had the goatee, but basically he looks like some mushy dude. He says on another episode when he hits on women he knows none of them are ever excited to talk to him just from site, but he just hopes they let him talk to them for a few minutes. It’s brutal to feel enslaved to how you look so heavily. Warpaint just eschew looking like anything by looking like nothing, being nothing to you, being only for them, something a lot of people falsely claim. But they aren’t faking—you can tell they just don’t care about you. If you care about them, fine, but all you’re going to get is the sound. And so you can focus on how it makes you feel, not how it makes them feel. Listening to them, I feel totally fucking hopped up and serene. Yesterday, on the train, listening to Warpaint on my headphones, I missed my stop. That has never happened to me. I’m way to aware of everything around me. So it wasn’t so bad to have that put on hold. If you don’t have the gift to be able to forget yourself, you shouldn’t make everyone else beholden to the same burden.

From The Collection:

Slept On
Posted: September 14, 2010
Schnipper’s Slept On: Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Extended Analogies, Possibly Polemics, T-shirts, Louie CK, Warpaint