tuesday lectures: let us press again on the hysterogenic point

In the last few decades of the nineteenth century, the Salpêtrière was what it had always been: a kind of feminine inferno, a citta dolorosa confining four thousand incurable or mad women. It was a nightmare in the midst of Paris’s Belle Epoque. This is where Charcot rediscovered hysteria. I attempt to retrace how he did so, amidst all the various clinical and experimental procedures, through hypnosis and the spectacular presentations of patients having hysterical attacks in the amphitheater where he held his famous Tuesday Lectures. With Charcot we discover the capacity of the hysterical body, which is, in fact, prodigious. It is prodigious; it surpasses the imagination, surpasses “all hopes,” as they say. Whose imagination? Whose hopes? There’s the rub. What the hysterics of the Salpêtrière could exhibit with their bodies betokens an extraordinary complicity between patients and doctors, a relationship of desires, gazes, and knowledge. This relationship is interrogated here. –Georges Didi-Huberman, Invention of Hysteria (1982)

augustine     [UNDER CONSTRUCTION!]

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my pisces lover, abstract and wild

Zebra Katz’s underground/high fashion hit ‘Ima Read’ is one of those music videos you never forget seeing for the first time. Over a dark, driving minimalist beat, Ojay Morgan’s sinister alterego details the many lessons he wants to teach the world in a pressing monotone, dressed cosily like the proverbial schoolteacher but marking papers with giant red Fs and staring down the camera like he’s trying to will himself into your nightmares. In empty corridors and library stacks we see twin “schoolgirls” dancing messily in their ski masks and lashing beaded braids, crashing into one another like drunken toddlers one minute, pulling the Shining stance the next. The whole scene is lit like an evening in custody. And amongst it all sits Njena Reddd Foxxx, petulant in her pleated schoolgirl skirt, wool cardigan, and knee-socks; smiling coquettishly and flipping her bunches while she promises to slice, dice, and ice that bitch she just doesn’t like. The song’s lyrics extrapolate the ball scene idea of “reading” — the great queen tradition of destroying someone else’s soul through pithy, painfully accurate putdowns — and Katz and Reddd Foxxx show their own hardy commitment to realness, carrying the concept through to absurdly academic lengths. ‘Ima give that bitch some knowledge, Ima take that bitch to college,’ he says. ‘It’s gon’ be cohesive,’ she says. ‘It’s gon’ be my thesis.’

I was lucky enough to catch them live not so long after the track began to gain traction, supporting Azealia Banks on her 2012 Fantasea tour, in a mindblowing performance that began in creeping leather bondage masks and fast became a high-energy exhibition of playfully vicious rap battles and floor exercises. A particular highlight was hearing the bemused crowd around me refer to Reddd Foxxx as Katz’s “dancer girl” as she chair-vogued her way Kit Kat Clublike through the set’s opening tracks, only to lose their shit when she grabbed hold of a mic of her own. Things have been a bit quiet on the music front for Njena since 2013’s wonderfully strange take-no-prisoners EP Needful Things — and sadly also on the twitter front since early this summer. But, trained at prestigious arts institute Cooper Union, she has been involved in exciting creative projects in other spheres, including a recent co-exhibition at Washington’s Smith Center (under her given surname Jarvis), and this mesmerising video collaboration with London fashion designer Kitty Joseph and Absolut Vodka (directed by Rohan Wadham) at the tail end of last year. Soundtracked by her own track ‘Watercolor’ — an uncharacteristically mellow paean to a long-distance lover, produced by Jepordise and built upon a Tom Brock sample — Reddd Foxxx models three bespoke looks — “drop”, “flow”, and “settle” — twisting and dipping her way through a series of subtle contortions, mimicking the dispersion of ink dye through water.

Taking inspiration from traditional Swedish glass crafts, every bottle of Absolut Originality has a drop of cobalt blue infused into its glass. This colouring technique has been used for centuries in hand-made art glass, but never before has it been applied to create four million original bottles. Added just as the molten glass goes into the mould at 1100°C, the drop of cobalt blue streams down inside the glass creating a unique streak of blue. At that temperature the cobalt is invisible, but as the glass cools off, a beautiful and unique blue infusion appears. (x)

Absolut is a brand with a really interesting advertising history. Originated by Madison Avenue art director Geoff Hayes in 1980, the company’s primary print campaign is by now the longest-running in advertising history, with over a thousand incarnations following a very specific format: bottle front and centre, two-word tag, first-word absolut(e). Through this repeated motif, the iconic bottle becomes something of a fond acquaintance, recurring in a seemingly inexhaustable series of visual gags that veer from heroic “straight man” stances to the bottle rendered as a kind of conspicuous secret agent character, peering out from behind its camouflage and sneaking around the tableau in the comic vein of an Inspector Clouseau or cartoon trickster. In a precursive move that, for better or worse, propelled the enmeshment of high art and high commerce, the company has also commissioned original works from over eight hundred artists throughout the years, beginning with Andy Warhol in 1986. But creative charm aside, the Swedish brand is one of very few famously known for its refined social consciousness. You’d have to be perilously naive to think they’re in it solely for the karma points, but nonetheless Absolut has been staunchly team lgbtq* since placing back cover advertisements in gay-interest periodicals The Advocate and After Dark back in 1981, long before it was considered anything other than brand marketing suicide to do so. However, the spare simplicity of Absolut’s flagship campaign proved a perfect vehicle for queer-friendly double-coding, with a series of meticulously constructed and magnificently executed ads that acted as commercial optical illusions, open to interpretation, and the appreciation of a wide variety of potential consumers.

1990_absolut_ad_copy Absolut-Vodka-Creative-Valentines-Day-Ad mistake marilyn appeal-green images pride
warhol-2 haring-2 pierregilles originalsscanoram...-hirst-2-16cbf95 absolut-bourgeois
Top: a selection of print ads since 1980. Bottom: Andy Warhol 1986; Keith Haring 1986; Pierre et Gilles 1993; Damien Hirst 1998; Louise Bourgeois 2003.

I’ve been listening to Njena quite a bit lately, and have found myself returning again and again to the Absolut clip. It really didn’t get the attention it deserved. So many commercial collaborations are woefully misjudged, but this really seems like the perfect meeting of minds and intentions. With an evident background in the ball voguing scene, not only did Reddd Foxxx come to prominence in the queer hip hop wave, but her lyrics play with the very same strain of double-coding as those early advertisements, trading in silly bitches, fishy girls, and mad queens — understandable in very different ways to very different audiences. (‘If you catched the clues you know what I mean.’) Recontextualised in this way, constant jocular references to her metaphorical anatomy — ‘bitches on my tip like a full time waiter’, ‘fuck that bitch, no vaseline’ — can also be read in a completely new, queer light. From music to installation to performance, the many strands of her creative work attend to the body as metaphor, the metaphor of the body, and it’s incredible here to watch her gender presentation transition from scene to scene through just small alterations in her hair, garb, and mannerisms.

The original edit is beautifully pacy, accentuating the flow between music, movement, fashion, and imagery, but I really wanted to take a closer look at what Reddd Foxxx was doing with her performance. Below is a selection of gifs I painstakingly grabbed from the video clip. Watching each scene out of context, it’s interesting to note that alongside the mimicry of her fluid movements, the jump-cuts on the swirling liquid scenes echo her popped poses and the stuck-record cycling of the track, creating an even more profound sense of cohesion. Let the automatic slideshow flow for an abridged, slowed-down version of the video, or hit pause and click through one by one to see just how stunningly well-constructed the whole thing is.

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nothing like the real thing

Based in Edinburgh and supported by Creative Scotland, Arika is a non-profit organisation staging experimental arts events across the UK, including an ongoing series of festivals in Glasgow exploring the intersection of multi-disciplinary artistic discourse and radical cultural politics. I was gutted to have to miss their last event, but this time around made only slight progress by scoring a late-release ticket to the closing discussion at south-side venue Tramway. Episode 6: Make a Way Out of No Way (named from the African American folk proverb, drawn from Isaiah 43:16) dedicated its weekend to exploring race, sex, sexuality, and gender as social categories versus the reality of lived experience, through a programme of music, film, and performance. Variously tired, jet-lagged, overwhelmed, and overstimulated, the assembled panel pressed on through two hours of in-depth discussion on black identity and experience. An introductory point about the whitewashed, cis-centric narrative of the gay rights movement was perhaps most illuminating, as activist and filmmaker Reina Gossett cited the work of key trans activists of colour Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, firebrands of the Stonewall riots of 1969 now yearly commemorated internationally as Pride. Gossett is currently working on Happy Birthday, Marsha!, a documentary about the important work and friendship the two women shared, and spoke of the mistreatment they suffered as the gay power narrative gained traction; the commercialisation of the movement in their wake; how parades that once ended in public parks now make their way to public houses. This set the tone for much of the discussion ahead: pride and passion in the work being done, but frustration at the enduring widespread sociopolitical and economic hardship of people of colour; the selective solidarity displayed by certain sectors of the lgbtq* community; the minority status within the minority status. At times anecdotal, at times abstract, at times angry, the conversation was passed around the table like a pliant piece of clay, shaped and reshaped by each speaker according to their background, encompassing institutional oppression, gentrification, theology, and molecular biology. The sheer wealth, breadth, and depth of knowledge and experience in the room was dizzying.

The overall theme of the evening was “realness”: a phrase popularised in the mainstream by Jennie Livingston’s pivotal 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, a chronicle of NYC’s drag ball scene as it ebbed towards the end of its Golden Age. Beginning with the queer masquerades of 1860s Harlem, ball culture reemerged in the 1920s and 30s with the “New Negro” movement, developing in the neighbourhood’s myriad jazz clubs and speakeasies, where black bohemians and white voyeurs flocked to see Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey sing the blues for hot poppas and bulldaggers in their tops and tails. Navigating the Prohibition-era cultural clampdown, the Puerto Rican influx of the post-war years, and the heteronormative ideologies of the 1960s Black Power movement, the scene continued to thrive behind barred doors, centring around competitions of theatrical catwalking categories showcasing the looks, moves, style, and attitude of femmes and butches in turn. In the 70s and 80s, the competitive circuit developed into a house system, with membership based upon personality traits and biographical kinship, echoing the burgeoning street gang and hip hop crew cultures. Here, nominated house-mothers and -fathers preside over family-like collectives, providing guidance, tough love, and understanding to their drag children. Ensuring shelter and safety for generations of homeless, ostracised lgbtq* youth, this community structure became particularly important through the heights of the Western AIDS epidemic, with entrance fees to underage balls waived for the sake of a visit to the HIV testing booth, and safe sex information disseminated by house-parents and respected emcees. Always preoccupied with the luxe spectacle of it all, the ball scene fell headlong into the haute hypercapitalism of the late 80s and early 90s, with houses often named for luxe labels and brand-conscious “mopping” (shoplifting) fast becoming a vital skillset for any serious competitor. Icon Ayana Christian was another member of the Arika panel. ‘Have any of you ever owned a real designer bag?’ she asked. ‘Real genuine leather, with that little card inside?’ The language of luxury goods easily lends itself to the ballroom.

We’re born naked, the rest is drag. –RuPaul

Filmed over seven years, Livingston’s film is a part tender, part ribald portrait of a maligned community on the cusp of being co-opted by the zeitgeist. Greeted with rave reviews and a cull of festival awards, its release came hot on the heels of Madonna’s smash hit ‘Vogue‘, and captured the spirit of the identity politics era, in which every college kid worth their bottle of CKOne belonged to a grassroots activist group designed to their own personal sociopolitical specifications (talk about theatrical catwalking categories). It was around the same time that the whiter, gaucher, downtown Club Kids caused quite the stir on the daytime television talk-show circuit, and it’s fair to imagine that, for most viewers, sightings of a befeathered Pepper LaBeija and displays by voguing godfather Willi Ninja all folded into the same spectacle, selling a scandalising vision of a post-Warhol, pre-Giuliani New York City populated by drug-addled gender-bending cartoon hedonists. In fact, though the two cultures were central to lgbtq* history and the development of postmodernism, and though both grew from the outcast’s fetishisation of fame, fantasy, and fortune, each was deeply rooted in a very different musical and artistic tradition — garage-house and techno-house, disco and punk, glamour and the grotesque, sequins and sci-fi. Without casting aspersions upon the cultural importance of the Club Kids, the ball scene certainly engaged more directly with sociopolitical issues, offering a safe space for the city’s economically and societally disenfranchised to congregate, celebrate, and imagine themselves living a divergent life. Beyond self-expressive role-play, ballroom drag allowed anyone bold enough to step up on that stage to be ‘anything that you’re not, and might want to be — or might want to make fun of, in some cases’. Alongside femme/butch queen and dance rounds at any given ball were categories such as ‘executive realness’ and ‘banjee realness’, with walkers competing to sell themselves to the crowd and judges, to prove they might “pass” in public, as a member of the social sub-group of their choice.

Though many of Paris is Burning‘s stars met with a tragic fate, dying young or in mysterious circumstances, the houses live on, and the ball scene continues to thrive today, albeit in a largely google-unfriendly fashion. Besides the widespread international influence of vogue, the culture has trickled down through popular culture in manifold ways. While pop artists like Beyoncé, Ciara, and Willow Smith have paid homage in their lyrics and dance routines, acts such as Lady Gaga and the Scissor Sisters have been even more overt in their shout-outs. Perhaps the most overlooked torch-bearer of the ball scene was Sex and the City, whose scarlet-headed Stylist-in-Chief Patricia Field had the dubious honour of founding ‘the first white downtown house to walk the uptown balls‘. The influence is evident in Carrie’s commitment to dressing the part (#executiverealness), but the most pointed tip of the hat is in ‘The Real Me’ (402), in which she is called upon to work the catwalk (with disastrous results) before play-strutting around her bedroom to Cheryl Lynn’s ballroom anthem ‘Got to be Real‘ in the episode’s closing scene. Though RuPaul’s background is more Party Monster than Femme Queen, his disgustingly entertaining Drag Race brings the zany humour of the Club Kids together with the unique lexicon and house-mother warmth of the ballroom, borrowing the America’s Next Top Model format to create something of a drag renaissance in recent years. This revival has been compounded by a new wave of queer black artists eager to pay their respects, from fashion darling Zebra Katz of once-ubiquitous ‘Ima Read’ fame, whose live shows feature gimp masks and Njena Reddd Foxxx’s creepily slow-mo’d voguing, to provocative lyrical spitfire Azealia Banks, who mixes voguing and ball lingo with posthuman iconography and post-CK electroclash covers. Despite being one of many subcultures riddled with homophobia, the more mainstream strands of hip hop too seem to echo with the legacy of ballroom. Rap — which grew up in the Bronx before spreading to neighbouring Harlem — is another genre quite uniquely preoccupied with the notion of “realness”: being real, keeping it real, authenticity and legitimacy. As Andrew Marantz writes in a recent article for the New Yorker, examining how this theme has developed through rap’s history, ‘realness in hip-hop has a slippery definition, related to the everyday sense of the word but not synonymous with it.’ While Maranz details the various examples of respected rappers whose backgrounds didn’t quite align with the hood narrative they were selling (Rick Ross was a prison guard?!), the article is essentially an attack piece on Iggy Azalea’s brand of glossy, ebonics-driven pop hop, and concludes that ‘realness, for her, is just another hip hop tic … nothing about Azalea feels real, in any sense of the word.’ There’s absolutely no denying that Azalea is a deeply problematic artist, but what such articles fail to consider is that, despite being a Tupac fangirl, rap for her is more a mode of artistic expression than a dyed-in-the-wool lifestyle. First things first, she’s a performer, and her public persona is infused with drag ball culture, as shown by frequent social media references to being “beat” (done up in flawless make-up), and her sheer glee at being called ‘a great drag queen‘ by RuPaul. Taken in this context, as a pretty young white Australian woman who gets up on stage every night as a flawfree swaggering rap goddess with a deep south drawl, Iggy is the realest: is practising ballroom realness on a worldwide scale. Indeed, the drag ball scene has featured plenty of cis-PYTs through the years, and bald bombshell Amber Rose found her feet there as ‘Paris Karan’ long before she was Kanye’s most infamous ex (now going by ‘Muva Rosebud’ on the internet). Considering the widespread cultural narrative that Yeezy taught her everything she knows, it’s interesting to hear such a ballroom influence in his 2011 collaboration with Jay Z, ‘N*s in Paris’. So good it defies all superlatives, the track is both a celebration of the jetsetting life of the young, black and gifted in the twenty-first century, and an ode to the city of lights as a place of freedom and frivolity for African Americans since early in the twentieth. Through homonymic and homophonic wordplay the song operates on two levels, ripe for reappropriation by the ball scene. The opening ‘Hova’ shout-out — a reference to Jay’s “god of rap” moniker — is voiced in such a way that it could be the ball scene warcry ‘ovaaah’, bestowed upon only the most fabulous of queens. A comment on the disproportionate criticism and ridicule levied his way whenever he acts or even just speaks out on America’s racism, Kanye’s ‘doctors say I’m the illest / cos I’m suffering from realness’ also serves to meld the worlds of hip hop and ballroom, extolling his authenticity, his aesthetic, and his willingness to stick his head above the parapet in one fell swoop. ‘Ball so hard’ is a given. To top it all off, Kanye wears a leather skirt in the promo. Give Jay his due but there’s a reason everybody says that Ye changed the game, Heidi Slimane.

These are some of the thoughts I took into the Arika round-table. What I brought away was an understanding that realness is a far more complex, political concept than I’d realised, tightly woven with notions of safety, survival, and catharsis, rebelling against the hegemonic strictures of the world we live in. While in the media and common culture lgbtq* people of colour are ignored and invisiblised, paradoxically in public spheres they are highly spectaclised, unable simply to walk down the street without risking the wrath of bigots and law enforcement agencies. In their ballroom walk, competitors at once take control of this hypervisibility, basking in the spotlight, while living out a fantasy of blending, passing, getting out from under the glare. Realness mediates the idealised self, the “true” self, and “reality” as defined by our culture. In living out these fantasies onstage, competitors escape the persona thrust upon them by society and socialisation, not by rejecting the narrow categories but by subverting them, proving them as fictions. Nevertheless, they do buy into these fictions, enjoying a brief taste of the attached privileges not afforded to them in real life — affluence, respect, adoration of the masses. Through realness they finally do feel real; feel recognised as valid social beings. What I brought away was leading advocate and Legendary House-Father Michael Robertson Garçon’s call for fury; filmmaker Arthur Jafa’s words on rejecting the idea of ‘difference as a basis for pressure’; poet-educator Fred Moten thinking aloud on ‘difference without separation’ and asking sound tech to restart the track, this time from the top, ‘this is Aretha‘. In a poignant moment, theologian Charlene Sinclair talked of the strangeness and difficulty of always discussing racial issues ‘under the white gaze’ at such events; Moten replied ‘I don’t care who is looking — look on, white people.’ I’ve spent the past four days reading over my notes with about twenty-five tabs open at any one time. Next year I’ll be sure to book early.

metamorphoses

A fortnight ago, in various venues across Glasgow, Scottish art-house collective Cryptic presented its second annual Sonica festival, a curation of unique, innovative, avant-garde science-art; one long weird weekend of “sonic art for the visually-minded”. Had I but world enough and guesties, I’d have been front and centre for everything. As things stood, I had to narrow it down to the unmissable: Michaela Davies’ Compositions for Involuntary Strings. In little over a decade, with an academic background in psychology and philosophy, Sydney-born Davies has already amassed an impressive catalogue of mostly musical projects that figure her as a kind of posthuman Abramović; a bodies-not-buildings version of obstruction-upon-the-natural obsessors Christo and Jeanne Claude; Charcot’s Augustine all grown up and working through her complex ptsd. For this particular fright night, against the eerie stripped-brick backdrop of the Tramway’s main space, Davies’ quartet were strung like strange sweating marionettes, wired to electronic muscle stimulation pads through which a pre-programmed “score” was transmitted, jolting and spasming the musicians’ arms to create a unique “involuntary” performance. The result was a morbidly engrossing evening.

Though aware the experience couldn’t possibly be agonising, from the trailer all I could think of was the Cruciatus Curse. As the audience entered the room, the musicians were in place and ready-wired; twitching legs, tapping feet, and giddy self-awareness giving away the anticipatory adrenaline coursing through their bodies. Building from an introduction of rough grimacing slaps on the bodies of their instruments, each musician moved through artless plucks and bow scores into complex fiddle patterns and tremolo so rapid you expected smoke. As later transpired, at least one of the performers had zero musical training; this team of cyber-musicians propelled by uncaring technology, lost in the satisfying discomfort, the terrifying catharsis of the complete loss of control. You thought of the girl in the red shoes (enchanted or cursed?) who couldn’t stop dancing. It made you queasy.

This hyper-embodied spectacle reminded me of a play I saw recently — Theatre North’s Handel’s Cross, part of this year’s Glasgay festival. Secured to a wooden saltire in a fetish dungeon, the protagonist-narrator talks his audience through a half-hypothetical biography of Baroque composer George Frideric Handel, twisting the tale with fantasy scenarios as his “jailer” enacts gestures of sublime pleasure/pain upon his naked body. A thoroughly unique theatre experience, perhaps most shocking was how quickly one acclimatised to seeing such a scenario on stage. We watch as his body is lashed then the cuts spritzed with perfume, candle wax poured down his chest, nipples clamped, testicles flogged until his body is ruddy and convulsing with pain. His senses overwhelmed by the experience, he begins to fumble his words, to cry out before the blow even strikes. Crucio with consent is the fundamental concept of BDSM, but the implications during performance are quite different. In those moments it was impossible to separate the character from the actor; to ignore the exposed human being beneath the thin surface of the art. ‘In performance art the knife is real, the blood is real, and the emotions are real.’ ‘This is a story about bodies,’ the play begins, and you think of Ovid, and forms that change.

In a single week where I finished one job, lost another, moved house only half by choice and celebrated a landmark birthday in the opposite of style, when the Sonica event rolled around it should have made more sense to stay home licking my wounds. But instead the question at the heart of the event’s promotion seemed particularly poignant: are the players playing, or being played? During a post-show Q&A every bit as weird and discordant as the piece itself, one audience member seemed fixated on the concept of voluntariness, arguing endlessly that the performance was indeed self-determined, being composed and pre-programmed and recurrently staged. It was irritating as these things are. Conceptual art rarely holds up to close reading — such rational criticism only serves to derail the creative conversation and to reassert the archaic hierarchy of masculine mind/logic/objectivism over feminine body/experience/subjectivism. Indeed, in this case the body-work of a younger woman was literally being maligned by the mind-interrogation of an older man, and in an exciting moment of spontaneous solidarity the room turned, several female audience members taking back quick control of the conversation. But in a philosophical slippery-slope sense the general point is an interesting one. If one consciously lays the foundations of the bad and painful things that will happen later, if one makes poor choices, diligently scoring one’s own downfall months and years before the spectacle is staged, can one really be said to be acted upon by higher powers, a bit-part in compositions beyond one’s ken? The artists’ bodies were acting involuntarily, out of their control, but their involvement in the project at all was voluntary. How far back can control, complicity, consent be traced? Once onstage, in media res, are the players playing or being played?

you drive like a demon from station to station

One of the things I always like to ask people when I’m playing getting-to-know-you is what’s your favourite David Bowie song? I think it says a lot about a person, which of his incarnations you’re drawn to, and my own pick is constantly shifting and changing. I guess he was always around in the background somewhere as I was growing up, though neither of my parents were ever particular fans. The first time I remember becoming conscious of him was when my amazingly eccentric/borderline secondary school Modern Languages teacher Mrs Smith, upon discovering that someone in our class had never heard of her favourite artist, cancelled the next day’s lesson to have us sit listening to Space Oddity with eyes closed and heads down on the desks. Afterwards, going around the room one by one, we were to list something we’d particularly enjoyed about the track. Anyone who hadn’t liked it was made to defend their opinion against The Ultimate Bowie Fangirl Machine, until they were inevitably beaten into submission and made to announce that 2 + 2 certainly did = a rather spectacular 5.

So maybe it’s like the musical version of Stockholm Syndrome, but I got a bit fixated on David Bowie a few years ago. I had been super into Madonna for a while and read a few interviews where she talked about how sneaking out to see one of his concerts was a formative moment in her life and career, then I took a class on psychoanalysis in pop culture and watched clips from Life on Mars and talked about performers like Bowie (and Madonna) who embodied the ideals of postmodernism, that the solid ‘self’ does not exist and we can choose to be who and whatever we want to be. Soon enough I started googling around and youtubed some of his videos and performances and interviews to get a sense of how much he played around with those kinds of concepts. There were a few of his songs that sunk their claws into me, but I would especially listen to TVC 15 on repeat for literally hours. It remains one of my favourite Bowie tracks.

I love the bizarre seediness of it, the strange calypso drums and Bowie’s odd Elvis intonations on the verse, and the kind of baggy trousers oompah oompah lairishness of it. I love the amazing sci-fi off-set of singing about state-of-the-art technology (oh, 70s) in such an old-fashioned thigh-slappin’ cabaret stylee. “The song was inspired by an episode in which Iggy Pop, during a drug-fuelled period at Bowie’s LA home, hallucinated and believed that the television set was swallowing his girlfriend.” Bowie’s relationship with Mr Pop has always fascinated me. There’s this whole rock ‘n’ roll mythology bit about how they moved into a tiny ramshackle flat in Wall-era West Berlin in the 70s to break away from their celebrity, find inspiration in the kraut rock scene, and get clean. Lou Reed joined them and the three spent the majority of their time nightclubbing, genderfucking, and writing some of the most depressing and sordid songs of their (/anyone’s) careers. I think about this, like, all the time.

Station to Station was the album preceding Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy.’ Subsisting on a diet of milk, peppers, and cocaine, obsessed with the occult, and living “in a state of psychic terror”, he performed under the guise of his last great character, the sinister Thin White Duke, “a hollow man who sang songs of romance with an agonised intensity while feeling nothing”; “ice masquerading as fire.” I love this clip of rehearsals for his 1976 tour. The wolf whistles and how feminised he becomes; the sort of new yoik sitcom theme tune jazz guitar intro and the pathetic weakness of his solo chorus. The pointy fingers at 3.17! It’s all so camp and bombastic, a parody of itself, almost mocking the (hypothetical) audience for seeming to think this is a song one should want to see performed. Wonderfully cruel.

There don’t appear to be many later renditions of the track kicking around — it’s not a song Bowie tends to play in concert anymore — but this is a great version performed on the London stage at Live Aid in 1985. The thrusting hips, the bouncing back-up girls, the frenetic oh-oh-oh-oh-ohs. No longer creepy and absurd and sparse as in the original studio recording, nor sung from very far away with a sneer of derision as by the Duke, all of a sudden TVC 15 becomes crazy meaningless happy bouncy party song! Of all his repertoire, at this point in his career, it strikes me as hilarious that Bowie would choose this song as one of only four to be broadcast before the eyes of the entire watching western world. It works completely in this context — it sounds, to all intents and purposes, like a perfect and obviously appealing candidate for performance to such a mass audience — but he had to completely renovate the track to make it such a rousing crowd-pleaser as this. And should any of the millions watching at home want to track down a copy for their personal collection, they would be introduced to quite a different Bowie in perusing Station to Station and beyond. He mightn’t be mocking himself so overtly anymore, as his alter-ego once did — in fact this performance, in all its shoulder-padded synthesized glory, is almost embarrassingly embarrassmentless. But the song’s inclusion at all perhaps suggests a certain level of discomfort in his status at this time, serving as a kind of caveat emptor, a look closer, an I’m not there.

For the record, I love Yuppie Sell-Out Stadium-Filling Bowie. I always thought it was more about playing into yet another role, monkey-barring his way into the big money music biz, trying on a different costume and stretching himself out in a different direction, without ever losing a sense of detached observation of what was going on around him. He’s never exactly been one for claiming moral integrity or rejecting the base desires. Once it was about lust and gluttony, now it was about greed and pride. But I watched an interview with him once, talking about those years, and he said one night he looked out over the audience and he realised they all looked like they should be at a Phil Collins concert. And he would never be at a Phil Collins concert. And suddenly he wanted to retreat and get back to a time when it was a little less about fame and a little more about infamy, where he might have been popular but never mainstream. So maybe this new interpretation of TVC 15 is just that; an artistic step forward, a bid to improve upon, or modernise, an earlier recording that perhaps at the time seemed silly, but now just seemed kind of… fun.