Immaterial Girl

Originally published as part of the Digestable newsletter

The world lost a beautiful human and a visionary queer voice this weekend when 34 year old musician and producer Sophie Xeon died in Athens. SOPHIE’s uncanny hyperpop has been associated with the London experimental pop label PC Music, but her notoriety and the depth of her vision and artistry has always eclipsed that of the label.

In this strange way of grieving her loss, I want to write about SOPHIE in conversation with materiality. The materiality of an object is the relationship between its physical material properties – its softness, fluidity, heaviness – and the constellation of interactions and uses that surround it. As an example, sociologist Mimi Sheller discusses how aluminum is sometimes called packaged electricity, referring to the incredible amounts of electricity required to manufacture the metal. Aluminum’s high embodied energy manifests in its material properties, namely lightness and strength, and these material traits create and reinforce a societal infrastructure of aluminum use patterns. Basically, the electrical energy that makes aluminum light and strong allows airplanes, cars, and packages to move faster and more efficiently. This societal coupling (i’m sorry y’all, grad school changed me, I just talk like this now) incentivizes the manufacture of more aluminum, and the use of more fossil energy to move even more things even faster.

Every aspect of SOPHIE’s music engages materiality. Her calling card as a producer is/was the incorporation of electronic instruments that evoke banging pots and pans, whoopie cushions, whistling tea kettles, and more. Though these instruments sound like recordings of objects, like they have a material origin, SOPHIE created them by manipulating electronic waveforms – coaxing a synthesized tone into the shape of something seemingly material. SOPHIE’s physical packaging also evokes and interrogates materiality. Her first album PRODUCT, could be purchased as a CD, a puffer jacket, platform shoes, sunglasses, or a Silicon Product – showing that the thing for sale is not any particular physical object, or even a set of recordings, but the idea that underlies the material. Lawrence Weiner wishes. The cover of SOPHIE’s second album shows her in a gown made of crinkly/flowing iridescent plastic and latex gloves the same color of her skin: materials you can hear and feel with your eyes, and that exist between fabric and packaging, soft and hard, natural and artificial. Even the title of the album OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES transforms from when you read it on a page to when you say it out loud – go ahead, try it!

SOPHIE wasn’t the first artist to engage with materiality in sound and consumer products. Queer electonic duo Matmos’s albums Ultimate Care II and Plastic Anniversary create soundscapes and dancey tracks entirely from manipulated recordings of, respectively, a washing machine and plastic waste. PC Music project QT (co-produced by SOPHIE) is a song, music video, and series of performances promoting a soft drink that cannot be purchased and is instead consumed by listening to the song. However, SOPHIE’s work gains deeper traction by linking this interrogation of materiality to Trans identity.

Prior to coming out as Trans, SOPHIE was reclusive with her physical self – masking her voice and using surrogates in live performances. OIL OF EVERY…, whose lead music video It’s Okay To Cry functioned both as a coming out and SOPHIE’s first fully embodied appearance, revolves around the relationship between who you perceive yourself to be and how others perceive you – a relationship mediated by your material body. It’s Okay to Cry promises “I think your inside is your best side,” Faceshopping intones “my face is the real shopfront / I’m real when I shop my face,” Infatuation asks “Who are you deep down? / Who are you out there?” and the climactic Immaterial proclaims “I can be anything I want… I don’t even have to explain… I can’t be held down.” By uniting this interrogation of the physical body as a mediator between gender identity, performance, and perception with images and sounds of manufactured materials that transform from rigid to flowing, dissolve into electronic noise, and exist between familiar and unfamiliar states – SOPHIE sought to create a Whole New World / Pretend World where gendered bodies and manufactured objects can transcend the constellations of use and perception that surround their material properties and become something else entirely.

I choose to read this Whole New World / Pretend World as an attempt to escape the material world created around oil – the Plastisphere as Matmos would call it. If you’re going to talk about materiality, oil is the material to talk about. Oil’s dense chains of hydrocarbons, literally the residue of millions of ancient lives lived and lost, allowed for the exponential growth in global (but mostly global north) energy use. Its fluidity allows it to be pumped out of the ground and shuttled across continents in leaky pipelines without involving pesky labourers who have the unfortunate tendency to unionize. And the ability of oil’s hydrocarbons to be broken down and rearranged into different plastics, each with their own material properties, creates a dense network of societal uses and expectations that equate oil with hygiene, sex, safety, mobility, and even sustainability by way of recycling.

From the Silicon Product of her first album, to the plastic waterslides adorning her singles, to the OIL in the title of her second album, SOPHIE’s material questioning has always centered on the oil/plastic material regime. This is what continues to tickle my brain about SOPHIE, that her instruments sound like rubber and metal, but they’re not. Her persona is/was one of a plastic materialistic popstar, but she isn’t. SOPHIE’s Whole New World evokes the commodity fetishism, speed, and lightness of oil, but it dissolves just before you can touch it and what remains is the quivering question of who you are “deep down.” By teasing us with uncanny images and sounds of oil’s material world, SOPHIE’s work tricks us into imagining a new one.

Writing this piece I’ve struggled on what tense to use, past or present. Sophie Xeon has died but her work still acts on me and sits in my body. I mourn for those who knew her, deep down her, those that knew the touch and presence of her body. And I mourn for all the life she can no longer live, all the words unsaid, conversations cut off mid-sentence, and worlds uncreated. But at the same time, Sophie was an alchemist – she could turn electronic vibrations into whoopie cushions and soap bubbles, and through her work was able to distill an uncanny elixir of life. Sophie Xeon was always mortal but SOPHIE is an immaterial girl, a self beyond herself, someone who’s waves still ripple out – even now taking on new and unfamiliar shapes.

The Nitrogen Cycle

This is a collection of three pieces on nitrogen, legumes, and soy originally written for the Digestable newsletter:

Nitrogen

Last Tuesday, 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate in a waterfront warehouse in Beirut exploded, killing over 160 people, injuring thousands more, and leaving 300,000 people without homes.  There’s been some great reporting tying this explosion to previous ammonium nitrate explosions near Galveston and Waco, TX in 1947 and 2013, Tianjinin 2015, North Korea in 2004, and even the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. In these stories, the explosions are normally blamed on mismanagement of the facility or malicious intentions and ammonium nitrate is characterized as a “harmless” and even benevolent fertilizer that only explodes when exposed to “intense stresses heat and pressure,” but that’s not quite the case.

Nitrogen makes up about 75% of our atmosphere and is a key nutrient that plants need to grow, but in a classic water water everywhere but not a drop to drink situation, plants can’t absorb nitrogen from the atmosphere, they need to get it from the soil.  The story is often told that humans did all these weird and wacky things to help our plant friends out: humans poop out lots of nitrogen so farmers in Japan filled their veggie carts with poop from the city to take back to their farms, birds poop out lots of nitrogen so the U.S. government passed the lovely neocolonial Guano Islands Act to harvest guano from bird poop covered islands in the Pacific (and expand the nation’s global military presence).  Then our hero, Fritz Haber came along and said “Stoppt den Blödsinn!“ (he was German) “I figured out how to synthesize nitrogen from the atmosphere for our plant friends!”

Unfortunately, painting Haber like a Prometheus to plantkind is… just inaccurate.  The real reason he was doing this research in the first place was because it was WWI and Germany was cut off from purchasing saltpeter (potassium nitrate) from Chile to make bombs.  The short version of why explosions work is that the nitrate in ammonium and potassium nitrate is a molecule made up of one nitrogen atom and three oxygen atoms.  Fire needs oxygen to burn and those three concentrated oxygen atoms hanging out with the nitrogen can turn a small spark into a really big one. Bad boy Fritz learned how to synthesize nitrogen to make ammonium nitrate which allowed the Germans to keep killing lots of people.  That’s right, the initial purpose of Fritz Haber’s Nobel Peace Prize winning invention was what? To blow big holes in cities.

But it doesn’t end there, because the Haber-Bosch process was used to manufacture fertilizer.  It was used to manufacture a LOT of fertilizer – so much fertilizer that 50% of the nitrogen in your body and the body of every human on Earth, was probably synthesized using the Haber-Bosch process.  A harbinger of spring familiar to anyone who has lived in rural anywhere is a pick-up truck hauling a tank of pressurized anhydrous ammonia gas ready to be sprayed on a farmer’s fields. Literally it’s so ubiquitous that one of the first images I found in my search was this toy version of the scene.  

A pick-up truck hauls a tank of anhydrous ammonia gas.
A "Farm Country" branded toy of a four wheel drive pick-up truck hauling a tank of anhydrous ammonia gas

But the readiness and availability of nitrogen fertilizer coupled with pressure on farmers from the industrial agriculture system to produce higher yields leads to the sorry statistic that the average farmer uses twice the nitrogen fertilizer than their crops can actually use.  Suddenly, this nutrient which used to be a limiting factor for plant growth is so abundant that the plants don’t know what to do with it so when it rains, all that excess nitrogen (and phosphorous which I haven’t mentioned here but it plays a role too) runs off downstream into lakes and rivers.  When it gets there, algae gobble it up and multiply, often drastically changing the character of the body of water and choking out the other fish and plants that thrived in a lower nutrient environment.  A well-known instance of these aquatic explosions is the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, where excess nutrients from farms across the entire Mississippi watershed emptying into the Gulf regularly creates such a huge explosion of algae that these tiny plants use up all the oxygen in the water across an area that at times has been as large as the state of New Jersey.

The catastrophe in Beirut is a terrible atrocity but it is one of a string of explosions that together make up a much larger collective tragedy.  Industrial explosions of ammonium nitrate stretch back to midcentury, ammonium nitrate bombs have been dropped on cities since the second world war, and explosions of killing life occur annually and seasonally in our planet’s lakes, rivers, and oceans.  The simple process of synthesizing nitrogen from the air using heat (generated by fossil fuels of course), pressure, and a metal catalyst has fundamentally changed so many things about our world and come at innumerable cost.  But maybe the way forward is just as simple, maybe it’s smooth to the touch, maybe it’s small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.

Legumes

So earlier I promised you all an answer to the nitrogen problem that involves a small smooth round object and then I just disappeared like all the oxygen in the Mississippi delta after an algae bloom.  I’m sorry for leaving you all hanging but I’m back with the answer! 

While you were reading about the extreme lengths humans have gone to in order to get nitrogen from the air to the ground you probably wondered if there’s way to fix nitrogen that doesn’t involve colonizing islands in the Pacific or using tons of fossil energy to synthesize highly explosive fertilizers.  You were absolutely right to wonder this, after all the human race wasn’t living under constant famine before the Haber-Bosch process was invented – and plants certainly do a good job growing on their own without the help of highly specialized human assistance.  So what’s the one weird trick to fix nitrogen that corporate ag companies and chemical manufacturers don’t want you to know? 

IT’S BEANS!

 

(please clap)

Something to know about me is that I have a mental “environmentalism” bingo board that is always in the back of my mind.  The entire bingo board is one big space that says “Legumes have root nodules that host symbiotic nitrogen fixing bacteria.” To break this statement down, legumes (a.k.a. beans and other friends) have little growths on their roots that serve as cozy homes for friendly bacteria that can turn nitrogen from the air into soil nitrogen for plants to eat.  Whether you’re talking about ecology, food history, climate science, farming, environmental policy, or any related fields, this fact is bound to come up eventually and whenever it does I bounce up and down in my chair like the excitable child I am and then post it to the meme page I created to celebrate the phenomenon.  

Maybe I’m a bit overzealous in my celebration of rhizobial bacteria, but I do believe it’s one of the most important environmental concepts.  Think about it, not only do plants use chlorophyll to literally make food from sunlight, they’re able to harness the magic of symbiosis to take this notoriously hard to find nutrient and focus it right at their roots.  Not only that, but legumes fix enough nitrogen to not only feed themselves, but all the plants around them that can’t fix their own nitrogen.  If you’ve been searching for a model of how to be a good neighbor, look no further.

Civilizations around the planet have been effectively harnessing this leguminous superpower for most of human history (shout-out to the three sisters).  Staying at my parents’ house on Dakota land in rural Minnesota reminds me that the vestiges of this knowledge are even visible in the fields of the U.S. industrial agricultural system through the standard crop rotation of growing corn one year and soybeans the next.  (those are soybeans in the photo)

But this gesture at ecological awareness within the industrial agriculture system doesn’t really cut it.  Corn is a notoriously hungry crop. It’s not corn’s fault, the plant is a tropical grass that we keep insistently planting in less nutrient rich temperate landscapes where soybeans can’t fix enough nitrogen to satisfy it.  On top of that, the intense cycle of deeply tilling soil every year and leaving fields without any vegetation to hold the soil down for half the year means that all that nitrogen the soybeans worked to fix escapes back into the atmosphere or washes away as the soil erodes.  That’s why farmers spray tanks of ammonia gas and cow manure on their fields every year, because the rigid factory-like agricultural system prevents these plants from working together the way they evolved to do.

So industrial agriculture sucks. Duh. But farmers and other plant people have been implementing some very cool ways to put this plant-knowledge back into the system! There’s intercropping, planting crops that play nice together next to one another like in the three sisters tradition.  Instead of corn having to survive off the leftover nitrogen from last year’s soy, the legume is right there fixing nitrogen in real time for everyone to eat.  This method also helps reduce pests because if a bug really likes to eat corn, it’s harder for it to hop from corn plant to corn plant if there are squash and beans planted in between.  Then there’s strip tilling, where instead of tilling the whole field, you only till the strip where you’re planting seeds.  Similarly, no-till farming uses machines that dig a little hole exactly where the seed is planted and the rest of the soil remains undisturbed.  Reducing tilling keeps those lovely hard-won nutrients from escaping the soil and prevents soil erosion. 

And then there’s my favorite, cover crops! This is where you plant a small, low to the ground crop over the winter or among the seeds of your main crop to hold the soil in place and prevent erosion.  Some of the most popular cover crops are clover and alfalfa which are (wait for it) LEGUMES! So when you plant clover over the winter, you not only keep your soil in place and sequester a little more carbon dioxide, you also fix more nitrogen in the soil!  Some cover crops, like alfalfa and rye, can even be harvested and sold, providing an extra financial incentive for farmers.  If we were able to remove the legislative and economic hurdles that safeguard the current agro-industrial complex and implement these practices on a national scale, it would mean an actual green revolution for our food system, climate, and global ecology.  We would be able to grow more and better food with less fertilizer and pesticides, restore countless eutrophied lakes and rivers, and begin to rebalance our planet’s nitrogen and carbon cycles.

In the city of Beirut following the ammonium nitrate explosion, people are behaving like beans.  Like the neighborhood mutual aid organizations that formed during COVID lockdown and the collecting of resources, expertise, and power happening at Black Lives Matter occupations and demonstrations, neighbors focus on the things at their disposal and what they can generate to fill everyone’s needs.  In the face of these tragedies, people form root nodules, spaces to share resources and form coalitions and ask our governments and systems to support us the way we support one another.  

Soy

I took an environmental ethics class in undergrad from a discombobulated wrinkly-shirted prof with some slightly unhinged teaching methods. His classes were seen as easy A’s since students were able to choose their own grade and readings were mostly optional as his lectures were made up of tangents unrelated to any assigned readings. I’m all for unconventional teaching methods and self-directed learning, but with how competitive tenured university positions are, I can’t disentangle this semi-successful experimental teaching style with the privilege of being a white man – especially at a college that has only elevated three women of color to the rank of full professor.

This all came to a head when, in a lecture supposedly about animal ethics, the aforementioned professor asked the class why they think “women” are more likely to be vegetarian than “men.” Brainy dudes love to ask this question, the ethics prof actually asked it two different times during the term. I also had another prof ask it in a lecture on Brazillian history this past term as well, provoking an anecdote from a fellow student about how difficult it is for him to be a heterosexual male vegetarian and to have waiters give him the wrong plate when he’s at a restaurant with a non-vegetarian woman. To me, the answer is obviously socialization – that women learn empathy while men are taught competition and domination. But for cis-dudes who have never been asked to interrogate their own beliefs or behaviors, it becomes this mythical question: what is it about women that makes them prone to vegetarianism?

In the ethics class, one of the jocks in the back row tried to formulate an answer. “Maybe it has something to do with the fact that women’s bodies are better at processing the estrogen in soy.” As a Big Queer Nerd sitting in the front row, I was already infuriated by the question itself, but the answer that vegetarianism = soy = estrogen = women sent me into a seething rage that continues to smoulder in my gut microbiome this very day.

One more anecdote before we dig into it: It’s 2018 and I’m at a Rockefeller owned farm in the Hudson Valley. I had had a lovely time so far, slept in a big bed and pooped in their indoor composting toilet (another Rockefeller venture), toured their on-farm mill and bakery, and later we were to visit a beautiful dairy/wedding venue – also pioneered by the oiliest of oil families. The farmer was taking my coworkers and I through their grain fields – heritage wheat and barley varieties interseeded with tallgrass prairie and given long rotations with soy (to fix nitrogen remember) and fallow prairie to rebuild organic matter. Truly a dream.

We were just finishing up at the grain silos where barley and soy was stored for animal feed when my gowanus-mom coworker, god bless, asked about giving her kids tofu. Apparently she had heard something about it not being good for them. The farmer, and this is a person who is deeply invested in regenerative agriculture and sustainable foodways, responds by saying that though he sells soy as feed to animals he would never give his kids unfermented soy, only fermented products like tempeh, because “the estrogen will mess with their hormones.”

Folks, listen to me when I say this: eating soy is not going to influence your hormones. Men are so afraid they’re going to grow boobs or that their balls are going to fall off and it’s just not going to happen. If eating soy was going to significantly influence your hormone levels we wouldn’t have trans folks fighting for the legalization and legitimization of hormone therapies – you could just switch up your diet.

The science behind the fear is that soy and its derivatives contain “phytoestrogen,” a plant hormone that is similar but not the same as estrogen. Animal hormone receptors can pick up and respond to phytoestrogens, but not always in the same way as estrogen, and the studies that strike fear into men’s hearts are mostly ones conducted on lab rats where they are fed diets consisting entirely of soy or have derivative phytoestrogens injected into them. These studies tell us important things about dietary hormone uptake, but to extrapolate them to the tofu in your fridge is not how science works. Also, jokes on you farmer guy because fermented soy products are actually higher in phytoestrogens.

This white masculine insecurity is also pervasive in conservative internet circles, where emasculated men (read: anyone outside the proudboy-white-nationalist-meninist ecosystem) is referred to as a “soy boy” – inferring that they’ve been feminized by their soymilk flat white (see also: the rise of almond milk, oat milk, and whey protein supplements). Not only is this fear of soy rooted in sexism and transphobia, it also reflects the racist portrayal of asian men as feminine and impotent. Soy cannot be bad for you if it’s been a dietary staple for a kabillion years – unless the people for whom soy is a staple are themselves seen as backward and emasculated.

This complex of sexualized and racialized attitudes form the dietary requirements of masculinity. Vegetarianism = soy = Asia = emasculation = estrogen = women. The framing of the question “why are more women than men vegetarian” and men’s attempts to answer it, reveals the real answer and the real question: 

Why are men less likely to be vegetarian? Because they are afraid. They’re afraid of excommunication from the boys club, of acknowledging privilege, of giving up the only way they’ve ever learned to move through the world. 

So reject masculinity and eat soy with wild abandon (unless you’re allergic)! Feel the phytoestrogens coursing through your blood infusing you with feminine energy! Not only does the plant play an important role in agroecosystems it has one of the best coefficients of digestion (more of it is nutritionally available) of any food meaning that if you’re looking for protein, soy is better than meat. Take that, men.


The Kensington Runestone

Originally published as part of the Digestable newsletter

I listened to the radio play Saber, MN, recommended by the lovely Molly Rose, and it got me thinking about one of Minnesota’s foundational myths. The fictional town of Saber, MN was founded because of the discovery of a sabertooth tiger skull fossil by a farmer plowing their field. This reflects the actual discovery of a supposed archeological artefact in Douglas County, Minnesota: the Kensington Runestone.

The territory called Minnesota exists on the ancestral lands of the Oceti Šakowiŋ (Seven Council Fires) and Ojibwe Anishinaabe people. Oceti Šakowiŋ were killed, starved and forcibly removed from this land during the U.S. Dakota War. Ojibwe people also resisted removal, culminating in the deaths of around 350 Ojibwe in the Sandy Lake Tragedy. Though many Ojibwe were still forced from their land, the aftermath of the tragedy led to the creation of reservations on their ancestral lands where many Ojibwe reside today.

As you would expect, this history isn’t taught or discussed comprehensively. Instead, many white Minnesotans partake – some consciously and others by osmosis – in the Kensington Runestone’s alternate history:

In 1898, just over 30 years after the execution and forced removal of the Oceti Šakowiŋ, Swedish immigrant Olof Öhman discovered a rune-covered stone in his field. According to its inscription, the stone dated to 1362 and recorded Scandanavian explorers in Minnesota. The runestone reads:

“Eight [Swedes] and twenty-two Norwegians on an exploration journey from Vinland to the west. We had camp by two skerries one day’s journey north from this stone. We were [out] to fish one day. After we came home [we] found ten men red of blood and dead. AVM (Ave Virgo Maria) save [us] from evil.”

“[We] have ten men by the sea to look after our ships, fourteen days’ travel from this island. [In the] year 1362.”

The stone was immediately dismissed as a hoax. The Swedish written on the stone was modern, not 14th century and the feat it would have taken for Vikings to travel from Newfoundland, where Leif Ericson founded a colony for like two minutes, to Minnesota is absolutely wild. Today it would take you 51 hours on the highway – and these were ship folk. Also, Lief Ericson was Christian, but I’m not sure he and his crew would have been Ave Virgo Maria Christian.

But whether or not the runestone was real, the stone took on its own life for Scandanavian immigrants and other settlers in the territory. The wounds of native genocide and removal would have still been fresh and the alternate history of the runestone served as a panacea for conflicted Scandanavians. If Viking explorers had been in Minnesota in the 14th century, then they had just as much right to be here now as anyone else. And with western culture being what it is, a written account – even a false one – would be seen as much more credible than generations of indigenous oral history.

This carries forward to today. Just look at the state’s football team, the Minnesota Vikings. To the Scandanavians I know, Vikings are just another ancient people like the Romans or the Gauls. But to much of white Minnesota Vikings are heritage. This whole Viking white alternate history also plays into ecofascism but that’s another article.

To wrap up I’d like to submit into evidence some proposals to redesign Minnesota’s state flag, which depicts its own revisionist history of removal and settlement:

The color story here is cute and we have the “etoile du nord” for fur trapper representation, but that is clearly a Scananavian cross! See what I mean? Why is that there and why is it the most boring flat blue?

Here the Scandies are again but this time it’s not even cute! Purple and gold are the colors of the Vikings football team for those that don’t know, so we’ve got a double dose of the norse. The purple/gold color combo is harsh already but superimposed on blue it just makes my eyes hurt.

Okay this one seems tasteful and innocuous, just a lovely etoile du nord hanging out, #NorthStarState. But that white shape superimposed on top is actually the “nordic star” knitting pattern you may recognize from that sweater in the back of your closet. NEXT!

Not this. Okay so Minnesotans love to claim Prince as one of our own, which he is and you better not forget it. But white Minnesota often does this in a very “I would have voted for Obama a third time” kind of way. So here we have the love symbol in Vikings colors with an etoile du nord stuffed into it stretched out into, yes, a Scandanavian cross again. My doves? Crying.


So, what are white Minnesotans to do, feeling lost in land that never belonged to them? Let’s start by STOPPING LINE THREE!

Take it UP!

Originally published as part of the Digestable newsletter.

Okay nothing hard hitting from me this week, just a little bit of corny fun to finish out the year.

I don’t really have any desire to engage with Dirty Projectors beyond the album they made with Björk but the song Up In Hudson from their last album is really an achievement. The song is about frontman David Longstreth’s break-up with his girlfriend/bandmate Amber Coffman but what really struck me about the song was its chorus. The very Joy Division lyrics “and love will burn out/and love will just dissipate/and love’s gonna rot/and love will just fade away,” contrast with a joyful ascending melody that, upon first listen, I could swear was a reference or allusion to a different song.

Turns out what I was hearing was actually three different songs that all use the same joyful adrenaline boosting musical trope as Up in Hudson: taking it up the octave. 

Some music theory background: in western music, there are seven notes in any normal scale and the bottom note in the scale is called the “tonic” or just “1.” The tonic is the note all the other notes in the scale are based on and gravitate towards. After you go up all seven notes in a scale, the whole thing repeats, the 8th note just being a higher version of the tonic. The 8 note distance between a lower note and its higher repetition is called an “octave.” The scientific reason an octave sounds both the same but also higher is that the sound wave of the higher note vibrates exactly twice as fast as its lower octave. If you want a deeper dive into this kind of stuff I can’t recommend mathemusician ViHart’s video essay Twelve Tones highly enough.

But if it doesn’t make sense don’t worry. Octaves are a real physical thing AND all western music is based around them, so even if you can’t wrap your head around it theoretically, you can definitely still hear them. Take the very festive example of Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas Is You. At the end of the song when the Queen of All Lambs goes “All I want for Christmaaaaaaas iiiiiiiiis….. YOUUUUUUUU!” That climatic YOUU is the tonic taken up the octave.

So here’s the thing: when your brain has been raised on western music, hearing someone “take it up the octave” like Mariah does is super duper gratifying. A lot of songs end by leaping up the octave to give the listener a little adrenaline boost that says “woohoo what a song!” But Up in Hudson and the following examples don’t wait until the end of the song or even to the end of the chorus to hit you with an octave leap. They jump right out and smack you in the face with it.

Exhibit One: Justin Bieber’s Somebody to Love. Not only does the octave leap at the top of the chorus make you want to punch your fist in the air, it’s really fun to listen to Usher run vocal circles around baby Bieber. I also like imagining a younger Hailey Baldwin listening to this song and being like, “Someday, that’s going to be me.” The early-chorus-octave-leap-idiom (ECOLI for short) speaks to The Bieb’s urgency. Yes it’s a little cheesy but it’s 2010 and Baby Bieber doesn’t have time to wait until the end of the song to take it up! He Needs Somebody To Love right now and he’s not holding back at all.

Exhibit Two: Swedish singer September’s Cry For You. This song is So Eurodance and So Very 2008. The video is Phenomenal, very gay, and yes the octave leap at the top of the chorus is very fist pump worthy. This is what I love about the ECOLI. Its emotional power and repetition makes it come off as cheesy and overdone, but doesn’t negate the essential truth, honesty, and vulnerability of the moment. When I listen to this song I know deep down that September is right. This person WILL never see her again. And who IS going to cry for them? Definitely not me!

Exhibit Three: So what if a song embraced the ECOLI with an octave at the beginning of its chorus, but also the octave leap was the entire song. Yes I’m talking about Eric Prydz’s iconic Call On Me. This is the ECOLI apotheosis. Mx. Prydz (yes another Swede) sampled the already cheesy ECOLI chorus of Steve Winwood’s Valerie and made A Whole Song out of it. At first glance the video is some kind of straight man 80’s aerobics fantasy, but I’m making the Jack Halberstam approved choice to purposefully misread it as the story of an AMAB egg breaking out of their shell through a femme-led erotic aerobics lesson. 

I mean seriously, is this the belly button of a hetero cis man? I’m just saying, they’re taking an all femme aerobics class and clearly rolled their shorts up to make them even shorter.

So, after these four examples, what can the ECOLI teach us? If anything, I think it shows there’s value in being goofy and cliche, that discovery can come from wild abandon. The ECOLI rejects the convention of holding back, of saving the best for last, The ECOLI is indulgent, honest, and vulnerable. Also, if you put these four songs together, they make a story which is fun: Desperation (Bieber), Infatuation (Prydz), Dissolution (Dirty Projectors), and Liberation (September). That’s all I’ve got for you! Wishing you a lovely end of the year!

December in Dublin & Limerick

Free Lunch

Originally published as part of the Digestable newsletter.

Oh— my twitchy witchy girl
I think you are so nice,
I give you bowls of porridge
And I give you bowls of ice
Cream.
I Give you lots of kisses,
And I give you lots of hugs,
But I never give you
Sandwiches
With bugs
In.

This poem appears in Neil Gaimen’s book Coraline and its 2009 film adaptation. Coraline is the story of a girl from Detroit who moves to a creaky old house with her botanist parents who are too busy with work to give her the attention she needs. While exploring the house, Coraline finds a Being John Malkovich-y door that leads her to a mirror world with an Other Mother and father who give her attention, joy, and lots of tasty food. Later in the film it’s revealed that the mirror world with its fun and spectacle and treats is all an illusion, a web woven by the spider-like Other Mother to trap Coraline and steal her soul.

I ordered takeout from a Japanese place in my neighborhood last week. I ordered tofu katsu curry but when I got back to my apartment and opened the bag, I found I had been given someone else’s order of seafood ramen and chicken katsu. Thankfully the restaurant called shortly after to apologize for the mix-up and refund my order but there I was, a vegetarian holding €30 in free meat. 

I ate the seafood for dinner and the chicken for lunch the next day. I’m not one to waste food and every rule has its exceptions. I’ve lost my taste for meat so I didn’t exactly enjoy either meal, especially the squid, that was a new one for me. But it filled me up and it got me thinking about free lunches and free food, especially food that doesn’t turn out like you expected.

Food plays a key role in Coraline. In the real world, Coraline is offered things like beets, swiss chard (my favorite), and saltwater taffy; but her Other Mother gives her cupcakes, strawberry waffles, and a full chicken dinner. It doesn’t come up explicitly in the film, possibly because the ick factor would be too much for children’s media, but it seems that all this delicious tempting food must also be nefarious, as the poem’s reference to “sandwiches with bugs in” would suggest.

Two other pieces of media I’ve consumed recently, Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You [exit here for the spoiler-phobic], and David Mitchell’s Slade House, also make use of this illusory food trope (I love the word illusory, it means “not real”). In Sorry to Bother You, Cassius Green heads to evil rich person Steve Lift’s basement office to snort some not-cocaine that may or may not turn him into a horse person. Slade House, part of David Mitchell’s soul vampire filled literary universe, follows the victims of two such vampires who are lured into the house to eat “banjax,” disguised as a damson plum or a pot brownie, to free their soul from their body so it can be eaten.

It would be easy to root this trope in the bible, in the garden of Eden with Eve biting the apple (Why is it always “biting” the apple but never “eating” it? A question for another week.), but I think that’s kind of boring and honestly who among us would not bite the apple? Seriously Eve did us a solid back there. And anyway, there are lots of other old versions of the trope like the lotus eaters in the Odyssey (I know, Homer again. Don’t @ me) and probably a million other examples outside the Western canon I’m not aware of.

Temptation is part of it but, it seems the power of illusory food as a literary device is in its intimacy. All the victims of Slade House cross the threshold of the vampires’ lair, but it isn’t until they willing take the banjax into their body that their fate is sealed. Cassius Green transgresses multiple times out of temptation and necessity: he crosses the picket line as a Power Caller, ditches Detroit’s art opening for Steve Lift’s party, and even partakes in a sort of minstrel show, but it isn’t until he consumes the not-cocaine and takes RegalView and Worry Free into his physical body that he surrenders his humanity. Lucky for Coraline, the Other Mother needs her to willingly pluck out her eyes to give up her soul. If bug sandwiches was all it took, she’d be totally fucked.

So food is intimate, and yes that’s scary when you’re being tempted to relinquish your humanity or your very soul, but it doesn’t have to be. There isn’t such a thing as a free lunch under capitalism, but at capitalism’s borders and beyond its reach the intimacy of freely given food builds relationships and community. Coraline shows this at the end of the story when she shares pizza and lemonade for her neighbors as they collectively plant a garden. All those pizza calories are guilt free and guaranteed not to steal your soul. Even when the food is tainted as it is in these stories, bodies still make use of it in unpredictable and productive ways: Cassius’s ingestion of the not-cocaine is what moves him to fully participate in the movement against RegalView, even before he turns into an equisapien. Likewise, the residual energy of the souls taken in Slade House and Coraline are what allow the soul vampires and the Other Mother to eventually be vanquished. 

Nothing scares me more these days than going into someone else’s house, breathing their air, and eating their food. The most intimate parts of ourselves, the breath and the space we share just so happens to harbor a secret enemy. The only thing that will save us is taking a little bit of that enemy into our bodies as a vaccine. But that’s what having a body has always meant, opening yourself up and taking parts of the outside world into yourself to stay alive. For more body and food stuff, check out Julietta Singh’s No Archive Will Restore You and Niel Cicierega’s Toy Food.

Auto-Tune the News: A Retrospective

Originally published as part of the Digestable newsletter

Let’s take a little trip back to the year 2009. I was in high school, iPhones were still all curvy looking, and T-Pain’s auto-tune was revolutionizing music and pop culture. Enter Auto-Tune the News, a video series by The Gregory Brothers that edits C-SPAN, Katie Couric, and other TV news sources into funny T-Pain style music videos. There are a lot of ways we could think about Auto-Tune the News as a historical document. We could talk about how it reflects the TV news ecosystem that has been replaced in large part by social media. We could talk about how Senator Bølverk’s exposed man nipple served as an awakening moment for my pre-coming-out gay brain. We should also take a second to cringe at the idea of four white folks using Black culture as a medium for satire. My goal here is to show how the video series, as a product of its time, can help us understand what to expect from the return of Biden politics to the white house. Note: going forward, hyperlinks will lead to different timestamps in Auto-Tune the News videos and I encourage you to listen along as you read!

My high school crush, Senator Bøloverk

So yes, today seeing a white guy in a baseball cap and shades singing “shawt-y” elicits a sharp inhale and a swift cancellation, but as far as 2009 mainstream media was concerned we had a Black president and race was over. Sure the world was still stuck in a financial recession despite Bush bailing out the banks but we had Obama and a democratic majority in both houses of congress. Hope was in the air and we could smell it!

Despite the promising prospects of this administration, when we look at the issues Auto-Tune the News emphasizes as important in 2009, not much has changed. Federal marijuana decriminalization/legalization is looking more possible than it was 10 years ago and there’s certainly wide recognition of racial inequity within drug criminalization and policing, but I’m doubtful democrats will be unified enough to move anything forward. That seems to be what happened with Obama’s promises of climate and health care legislation. Even with the congressional majority, democrats weren’t able to unify around climate action and ended up loosening environmental regulations to “compromise” with republicans on the climate change bill. Of course, this didn’t work and if you’re looking to dive deeper into everything future “climate czar” John Kerry did wrong, I’d recommend the New Yorker’s forensic report on the Waxman-Markey bill. Healthcare, Obama’s other goal did go through, but the ACA fell short of its ambitions and for some reason the way forward is still up for debate among democrats.

As another way to compare Biden season 1 to Biden season 2, let’s do a roll call of the politicians that show up in Auto-Tune the News:

It’s unnerving how similar the political climate of Auto-Tune the News is to today because things in the real world are a lot worse. Again, Biden is coming into office during a health/financial/climate crisis and seeing “small business” bailouts and the creation of jobs jobs jobs and jobs as the way to solve it. Also the supreme court is fucked and even if dems win Georgia the senate will be in a stalemate. Shit’s scary.
None of this is to discount the victories of progressive movements over the past decade. If anything, looking at how little has changed shows us just how much pushing and hand holding Biden will need. If the ice was thin in 2009, it’s now very very very thin.