These articles were selected as finalists in the DC Student Arts Journalism Challenge.
Why Artists Should Stop Playing Their Seminal Albums Live
By Paula Mejia
On a wispy evening last October, my housemate and I went to see GZA perform his magnum opus Liquid Swords in full at D.C.’s swanky Howard Theater. I wasn’t the only one with high expectations. The crowd’s hunger escalated with Killer Mike slaying his opening set, pulling out perfectly punctuated showstopper moves, pouncing directly into the crowd, taking drags from a carrot-sized blunt and passing it around for all to inhale. He closed out by simply dropping the mic and disappearing behind scarlet curtains before you could even say “damn”.
That said, I couldn’t imagine what sort of antics GZA would pull during his set. The gun was cocked. But then…GZA never pulled the trigger. He strolled onstage blank-faced, an expression that didn’t change for the 40 or so minutes he performed. He immediately jumped down into the crowd, as Killer Mike had, for Liquid Swords’ opener and title track “Liquid Swords.” He immediately handed the microphone off to an anonymous member of the crowd. It was cool at first, even appropriate seeing people duke it out for “Duel of the Iron Mic.” But instead of slinging rhymes, a stone-faced GZA handed off the mic consistently, barely muttering.
When he did take it back, he kept reminding everyone to “YouTube this shit” and Instagram the moments he brandished a mic in everyone’s face. With 40 iPhones all blinking at once, it felt like performance art and a publicity stunt combined. Was Wu-Tang’s purist in there somewhere, the one I had come to see perform? Where had the prowling Genius gone?
I thought about the value of performing “seminal” albums in full, as opposed to performing newer material, long after the curtains drew to a close. Are tours to perform albums in their entirety misguided — fans own the albums anyway — and more of a PR stunt to enliven an artists who may have hit a lull? Or are the full album tours giving in adoring fans’ demands?
My freshman year of college, Pixies sold out two consecutive nights to perform Doolittle at D.C.’s colossal D.A.R. Constitution Hall. I didn’t go — tickets clocked in at a steep $60, and at the time I was attending every campus club event I could find in search of a free meal. Why pay that much to hear an album performed when I own a vinyl copy, and could just listen to that? Ticket prices for full album tours often rake it handsome profits, but are exorbitantly expensive for audiences.
If I were going to experience Doolittle live, the moment would have probably been as a college student in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Sure, I was born too late to see Pixies in their heyday, but I’m pretty sure “Gouge Away” wasn’t meant to be performed in front of a seated audience of 3,700 people. If Pixies were to get back together now, I’d say there’s more value in what an older, stranger Black Francis has to say at this point in his life than him cranking out “Debaser” yet again.
As years pass, musicians’ sensibilities and mindsets inevitably shift. Growing out of songs isn’t uncommon. Much of the brilliance of bands’ piece de resistance albums, from Doolittle to Damaged is due to the perfect (albeit unpredictable) marriage of timing and place. The divine unsettlement of Liquid Swords too stems from GZA spitting about what was immediate and important to him in 1995. In his case, gritty street tales of hustling and growing up in inner city Brooklyn.
When GZA sleepwalked through Liquid Swords he not only sounded disinterested, but also plain spent. The grueling tour circuit inevitably wears on artists, especially when they’re performing from the same album that propelled them to glory. And at this point, he’s probably performed “I Gotcha Back” tens of thousands of times.
Nick Cave is currently touring to promote the latest Push The Sky Away, along with his band The Bad Seeds (it hits NYC”s Beacon Theatre next Thurs. and Fri.). On the tour circuit, the Bad Seeds have hit SXSW, something older and well-established bands don’t do too often unless they’re insane (here’s looking at you, Wayne Coyne). I could harp on the demise of The Birthday Party, disbanded in 1973. But there’s more room for an audience to be floored if Cave performs from his latest, more a testament to his band’s growth than if he were to perform, say, 1985’s From Her To Eternity in its entirety.
The magic of seeing a band live lies in the spontaneity we can’t pick up on our home speakers, amplifying the love for those formative albums. I can’t listen to Dummy without it still resounding with the bittersweetness of an old friend’s footsteps walking away, or Exile On Main Street without thinking of how it sometimes hurts to breathe in so much sky when driving through my home state of Texas. Instead of performing Dummy, an album I can hum by heart, I’d find it far more compelling to see Portishead work to craft a careful set list. Maybe they’ll pull favorites like “Sour Times” as well as b-sides, or even a cover in between to both engage and inspire audiences.
Right now, we’re at a pivotal point where the industry has to rapidly adjust to increasing interconnectivity and the ability for anyone to make music. Bands have a choice: they can either dust off decades-old albums. Or they can use their artistry to continuously revamp their live performances, continuously finding alternative ways to win the hearts and minds of audiences.
Paula Mejia is a student at George Washington University, where she is currently enrolled in a 5-year BA/MA program in English and Creative Writing. She is currently an Editorial Intern at SPIN Magazine in New York, where she also writes. In her spare time, she freelances for various arts and culture publications, both in print and online, including The Village Voice, Consequence of Sound, Time, Washington City Paper, FILTER and others. She is interested in bridging further connections between music, identity and technology in today’s ever-shifting media landscapes.
Is MoMA Putting Artists Back in the Closet?
By Mark Stern
The Museum of Modern Art currently has on display a wonderful, compact installation titled simply “Johns and Rauschenberg.” Featuring art culled from the museum’s permanent collection, “Johns and Rauschenberg” focuses on works painted by each artist during the mid to late 1950s, using Robert Rauschenberg’s recently acquired Canyon as a centerpiece. The introductory placard describes the two artists as being “in dialogue with one another,” explaining how their works from this period led the way “beyond Abstract Expressionism” and toward Pop Art. At the heart of the installation is the relationship between the two men, an intensely collaborative yet highly competitive connection which pushed each artist toward his own artistic triumph.
It’s a nice narrative, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were lovers during this six-year period of collaboration, and their relationship had a profound impact on their art. For years, the art world ignored this vital component of the Johns/ Rauschenberg story, while the artists themselves kept mum on the matter. But 2010’s exhibition Hide/Seek at the National Portrait Gallery broke the silence, openly exploring the artists’ sexuality as it intersected with their work—the first ever gay-themed exhibition at a major American museum. That was over two years ago. Now, in 2013, MoMA is sending Johns and Rauschenberg back into the closet.
This is puzzling. Were MoMA a publicly funded museum, it might be concerned about offending its state patrons—that concern may sound very 1999, but the censorship issue reared its head again during Hide/Seek’s run, when Congressional Republicans threatened to cut the National Portrait Gallery’s funding over a gay-themed, allegedly “blasphemous” work of art. (The museum quickly removed the offending piece.) MoMA, however, is privately funded, and accepts no government cash. So why the dodge on Johns and Rauschenberg?
Most likely because art museums, even seemingly progressive ones like MoMA, remain more closeted than you might think. Textbooks and survey courses have only recently begun examining this dimension of art history, even though it is a fundamental aspect of movements like Pop Art. And while queer theory has allowed art historians and critics to incorporate artists’ sexuality into interpretation of their works, orientation is rarely noted in museums. (The MoMA’s profile of gay icon Andy Warhol fails to mention that he was gay.)
Sometimes that’s fine—most of Warhol’s work, for instance, does not merit mention of his sexuality (though leaving it out of his bio altogether is a bit much). But in the case of Johns and Rauschenberg, ignoring orientation amounts to curatorial malpractice. As the curator ofHide/ Seek Jonathan Katz explains, Rauschenberg’s guilt and turmoil over their relationship is explored in some of his greatest works, including Canto XIV. Johns’ work In Memory of My Feelings – Frank O’Hara is an obvious eulogy for the relationship. The title is a reference to a poem by O’Hara, who was himself gay, which begins:
My quietness has a man in it, he is transparent
and he carries me quietly, like a gondola, through the streets.
He has several likenesses, like stars and years, like numerals.
The painting contains one of Johns’ famous Americans flags reversed and coated in thick, dark paint, occluding the iconic image with gloomy tones. Johns painted his first American flag soon after meeting Rauschenberg, and completed In Memory during their break-up. Accordingly, the piece is often interpreted as an illustration of a relationship tarnished, smothered, and increasingly obscured by the passage of time.
While those two works are not on display in “Johns and Rauschenberg,” several of the installation’s paintings could be rewardingly subjected to similar analysis. MoMA gives us no such gifts, though, skating over the true nature of the two men’s relationship and, at one point, actively denying it, really, by referring to Johns as Rauschenberg’s “friend.” Issues of offensiveness aside—gay people have fought for decades to have their partners recognized as more than mere “friends”—such bowdlerization is intellectually dissatisfying. Even a brief reference to the artists’ sexuality could clue savvy viewers into keener investigation of these droll, elliptical works—or, even better, complete the installation’s narrative. MoMA tells us that Johns’ and Rauschenberg’s collaboration led them away from abstract expressionism, but it fails to explain how they discovered Pop Art. That genre, birthed by these two artistic giants, was built upon rejection of societal norms including hyper-masculinity and heternormativity. Its gay dimension was present from its genesis, yet a casual visitor to “Johns and Rauschenberg” might think Pop Art merely sprung out of two buddies’ wacky experiments.
In an attempt to justify this re-closing of the artistic closet, MoMA’s press office first informed me that Johns and Rauschenberg “wish to be described” as just friends. (Rauschenberg died in 2008; Johns is 82.) When I asked whether the artists specifically requested such a label, the museum’s representative walked back the claim, instead stating that they “have been referred to that way [as friends, that is] historically,” but the rep would not say whether the artists themselves insisted on the “friends” phrasing. Neither would the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, which officially had “no reply” to the question, or the Matthew Marks Gallery, Johns’ dealer, which failed to respond to repeated inquiries.
The artists’ preference, whatever it may be, is hardly the only factor to consider here. Museums have a responsibility to acknowledge and consider the sexuality of artists in their collections when it is relevant to the work they are displaying. That’s the real tragedy of “Johns and Rauschenberg”: not that it puts gay artists in the closet, but that it keeps viewers in the dark.
Mark Joseph Stern is a graduate of Georgetown University, where he double majored in History and Art History. During his time at Georgetown, Mark was a frequent contributor to Slate Magazine. His work has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal and the Denver Post. Next year, Mark will be attending law school at the Georgetown University Law Center.
Growing pains become pleasures in Chobsky’s Perks
By Mary Borowiec
The transition from book to the big screen is one widely feared by authors and audiences, as movies almost universally fail to live up to their printed predecessors. Proving the exception to this rule, The Perks of Being a Wallflower shines in the film adaptation of this coming-of-age tale, bringing heart and a star-studded cast together to capture the emotional roller coaster that is growing up.
The successful adaptation of Perks is due in large part to the atypical position of Stephen Chobsky, who served as director, screenplay writer, and author, as well as inspiration for the story’s central character, Charlie. In a question-and-answer session about the film, Chobsky explained the decision to direct his own work. “It was so personal, I couldn’t just sell it to Hollywood.”
Though Chobsky’s connection to the story could have crippled the adaptation, his ability to distance himself from the story in the 10 years he took between writing the novel and the screenplay came together seamlessly in this production, which he described as “the greatest artist experience of [his] life.”
Fiercely personal but universal in its depiction of growing up, Perks captures its audience with Charlie’s moving but winsome tale of fitting in and finding himself during his first year of high school. Framed through a series of letters to an unnamed but supportive source, who is addressed simply as “Dear friend,” Perks maintains a strong first-person narrative, impressively staying true to the book’s perspective.
Perks begins as Charlie (Logan Lerman) enters his freshman year, both trying to move beyond a bad place and to survive the 1,800 days of high school. Identifying as a “wallflower” because he watches life from the sidelines, Charlie soon falls in with a group of outliers, led by step-siblings, Sam (Emma Watson) and Patrick (Ezra Miller). Together they draw him out from his precarious position witnessing life go by and into their inner ring, where he learns to “participate,” even if that means trying everything from pot brownies to performing in the “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” This theme, which carries throughout the movie, leads to one of the most warming scenes of the film, where standing on the outskirts of the gym at homecoming, Charlie head bops his way to the center of the dance floor to join Sam and Patrick as they comically perform a dance routine to “Come on Eileen.”
As Charlie is quickly subsumed into this group of misfits, led by the beautiful but troubled Sam, who doesn’t think she deserves to be loved, and class-clown Patrick, who struggles with a boyfriend who won’t admit his sexuality, Perks might seem on par with an ABC Family original movie overflowing with every adolescent issue imaginable—an opinion only compounded by Charlie’s ultimate revelation of being sexually abused.
Yet, in overcoming this propensity for melodrama, Lerman, Watson, and Miller astound with incredible performances that bring both innocence and intensity to their characters in a way that makes their every struggle and triumph come alive. As a result, this trifecta of actors undoubtedly succeeds in recalling the singular struggle that is growing up while simultaneously making the audience root for their every success.
An honest role that encompasses the entire high school experience from the mundane to the extraordinary, Lerman’s portrayal of Charlie impresses not only for its candidness but also for its range as Charlie navigates school dances, parties, an LSD trip, his first kiss—with a girl and boy—all culminating in a sweeping breakdown that lands him in a mental hospital. Alongside Watson and Miller’s leading roles, an eclectic cast of minor characters, from Charlie’s parents (Dylan McDermott and Kate Walsh), to his sister’s boyfriend, Ponytail Derek (Nicholas Braun), to his English teacher (Paul Rudd) make Perks a collection of comical but identifiable lifetime moments.
A stellar soundtrack brings these scenes to life as Chobsky succeeds in capturing “a timeless nostalgia,” which is, for him, what makes this coming of age story stand the test of time. This feeling is best captured in bookend scenes where first Sam, and then Charlie stand in the back of Patrick’s pickup truck as he speeds through the tunnel at night, the city lights sparkling around them. It is this instance, as Charlie explains in his last letter, “This one moment when you know you are not a sad story. You are alive. And you stand up and see the lights on the buildings and everything that makes you wonder and you are listening to that one song on that drive with the people you love most in the world and in this moment, I swear, we are infinite.”
Mary Borowiec hails from Summit, New Jersey. As a senior at Georgetown University, she is studying History and Spanish–she is currently studying at the university in Sevilla, Spain. She has worked for Georgetown’s weekly news magazine, The Voice, since freshman year and last year served as the editor of the Arts and Leisure section. At Georgetown, she has also been involved in undergraduate research and a literacy and mentoring program for local youth.
Phyllida Lloyd’s Julius Caesar: Guts, Glory, and Girl Power
By Megan Fraedrich
There are many excellent reasons for an all-female production of Julius Caesar. For one, the play is among Shakespeare’s most male-dominated, which is saying something; out of roughly forty characters, only two are female. Those two exist to give (ignored) advice to their husbands, and are saddled with lines like “Think you I am not stronger than my sex?” Furthermore, female friendships are often still trivialized in today’s media, while the shifting alliances, betrayals, and dilemmas seen in Julius Caesar are the stuff of literary legend. It would be great to see a more nuanced portrayal of ‘backstabbing’ among women, without the usual high school movie cattiness. Yet for all of the interesting ways Phyllida Lloyd could have explored gender in Julius Caesar, her sold-out production at London’s Donmar Warehouse fell strangely flat.
Not that there wasn’t plenty of excitement to be found. Even before the first lines of dialogue, the creative team made it clear that this was no ordinary Shakespeare production. Audience members who failed to miss the security cameras lining the walk to the auditorium couldn’t ignore the stark interior of the auditorium: never has the Donmar Warehouse looked so much like a warehouse. Designer Bunny Christie replaced the comfy seating with hard plastic chairs and gave the performance space a dingy, industrial look, complete with peeling paint. A strange array of props litter the stage, from a baby doll and a tricycle to a cake and a paper crown.
Lloyd’s concept sets the action within a women’s prison, the ‘inmates’ performing the tale of Julius Caesar ala Marat/Sade. The show begins with the framing device of the prison guards unlocking the doors, leading the inmates onto the stage, lining them up, and locking them in. The play itself is filled with loud punk rock music, water guns, and contemporary touches like magazines, doughnuts, and the occasional f-word dropped amid the blank verse—not your grandma’s Shakespeare. The personalities of the prisoners occasionally intrude through their Roman characters, most notably when the murder scene of Cinna the Poet gets out of hand, injuring an ‘actress’ and sending the cast into a frenzy. But Lloyd seems to have little to say with this concept, besides giving excellent female actors the chance to speak some of the Bard’s greatest words. Rather than put a feminine spin on the story and characters, the proceedings all seem very gender-neutral, even butch.
Almost every character wears baggy prison polo shirts and sweatpants—except for Brutus’ wife, Portia (Clare Dunne), dressed in a pretty white dress, and appropriately coded as a ‘female character.’ When she doubles as Octavius Caesar, she, too, wears the shapeless uniform. Some moments simply don’t make sense. Why is the Soothsayer portrayed as a naked child? If Caesar is openly dating Antony, who does Calpurnia represent? If Caesar doubles as a prison guard, why does she wear the prison uniform? Does the metaphor of prison emphasize any aspects of the text, or is it just an arbitrary reason for an all-female cast?
The actors handle the text well, despite the clumsy framing device. The only misfire comes from Frances Baker as Caesar, whose boisterous, loud, and crude, mannerisms don’t seem to come naturally to the veteran actress. She brays her words with elongated vowels, as though sucking the juice out of them as she speaks. It is easy to see why Caesar’s friends would want to stab her; not so much to see how she became so respected in the first place. Maybe it’s the doughnuts she brings the inmates.
The excellent Dame Harriet Walter plays Brutus at least as well as the RSC’s greatest men, with a restrained, haggard demeanor. She even swears in a thoughtful manner. Walter’s gaunt face and gravelly-yet-posh delivery give her an androgynous elegance, and she emphasizes the divide between Brutus’ private turmoil and public stoicism. Her performance is most poignant in a scene where, drifting to sleep in her tent, she dreams of dancing with her dead wife. The play’s most haunting scene and one of its simplest, it hits a level of emotional engagement with the audience that much of the play fails to deliver.
For most of the play, Walter shares the stage with Jenny Jules’ volatile Cassius. Jules spits angry words through her teeth, resembling a rattlesnake as her body shakes with rage. Her Cassius is an exhausting person to watch, both for the audience and for Brutus: Walter seems to grow ten years older when interacting with her. Brutus’ exasperation plays well off of Cassius’ petulance, but Jules lacks the manipulation that Cassius requires. Lean and hungry she certainly is, but subtle, she is not. Clare Dunne’s Portia emphasizes her shared traits with Cassius—she gives herself a ‘voluntary wound’ to prove her bravery to her husband, a moment that takes on greater significance when Cassius attempts to do the same after Portia’s death, and Brutus hastily prevents her. Yet Dunne’s Octavius Caesar seems dull-witted, lacking the spark that make her Portia so interesting.
Cush Jumbo gives Mark Antony nuance from the start, her large dark eyes simultaneously calculating and soft. As Caesar’s toy-girl, she raises the energy whenever she takes the stage, filled with that “quick spirit” that Brutus mocks, but Jumbo moves with a contained grace. Her anger is much quieter than Jules’, and the more threatening for it. Even her acting, though, cannot justify Lloyd’s decision to have her deliver her ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ speech lying down.
Other standouts in the cast include Charlotte Josephine as Brutus’ mischievous young servant Lucius and Ishia Bennison’s sarcastic and cackling Casca. This adaptation manages to convey the full story with only fifteen actors, a mean feat for a play with so many characters, and though it is occasionally difficult to tell who was who, the plot itself remains crystal-clear. A battle scene cunningly uses lighting, rock music, and stylized movement to represent Cassius’ decimated ranks: standing on a moving platform, Cassius watches in despair as her soldiers disappear. The assassination scene fills the stage with well-choreographed chaos, forcing Caesar into a chair in the audience (at this performance, mine—I was brought up onto the stage by an actress and placed in the middle of the madness) and shoving bleach down her throat. Rarely, however, does the action attain the electricity that the setting demands. Performed in one act without intermission, using the guards’ interference following the ‘Cinna the poet’ mob to transition across the skip in timeline, the play drags despite the abridged script.
Though this noisy production says little about gender besides showcasing female talent—and Harriet Walter seems ready to conquer Rome, following an enchanting stint as Cleopatra opposite Patrick Stuart—it sparked enough controversy to convert any skeptic to feminism. Cranky critics mocked the idea of an all-female cast more they did any directorial weakness, and droned relentlessly about Shakespeare ‘spinning in his grave’ at the thought of (gasp) female actors! The original text of Julius Caesar is packed with anachronism (characters talk about clocks and doublets, both definitely not Roman, and use Elizabethan slang liberally) yet modernizing Shakespeare’s already-modernized retelling happens surprisingly rarely. Lloyd’s Caesar could have used a bit more substance to back its considerable style, but it certainly injected some fresh spirit—and estrogen—into one of the starchier plays in the literary canon.
Megan Fraedrich is a rising senior Literature major at American University, focusing on early modern drama. She is an avid participant in the campus Shakespeare troupe, the AU Rude Mechanicals, and hopes to direct her own production of Julius Caesar next year. Megan enjoyed a semester abroad in London this past fall, where she got to stand on both the Donmar Warehouse and Globe Theatre stages.
To learn more about the DC Student Arts Journalism Challenge, check out this page on the arts magazine Bourgeon.