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Five Degrees Below Zero 

A column that puts a unique spin on five pop culture phenomena

1°--Bitch Magazine: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, No. 14, The Music Issue

Bitch is all caught up in the pleasure and pain of assertion and denial. Taking a "queer" perspective on pop culture, which essentially means attempting to get away from rigid definitions of identity--especially sexual identity--the magazine declares over and over again, "You can't define me!" even as it tries, in article after article, to define itself. It screams out, "Leave me alone!"--especially to the boys--even as it urges, "Let's all get together here, and make the world a better place."

Which is fine, because there's a lot of wonderful, important stuff here. Rachel Fudge explores the co-r-r-r-poratization of the riot grrrl movement, pointing to the telling loss of an "r" in grrrl (to grrl). One solution she proposes is for feminists to reclaim the word "lady" in meaningful ways. Which, it seems, is exactly what Durhamites Tammy Rae Carland and Kaia Wilson have done with their Mr. Lady Records, covered in an article by Marisa Kula. Anna Mills writes about her hunch that all those half-naked females in ladies' magazines might in fact not be about impressing men, but about women's attraction to each other. Abigail Leah Plumb analyzes what pop culture makes of "smarty girls" by examining three films about lady librarians. And Keidra Chaney offers a wonderfully personal-yet-political piece on growing up as a black feminist/heavy-metal fan.

The editors of Bitch--Lisa Miya-Jervis, Andi Zeisler and others--have a real sense of the complexities of pop for women--and for everyone. "Popular music has always been dozens of things at once--an accessible platform for a uniquely female perspective, a battleground in the sexual revolution, a history lesson, a fashion show," they write. "Women are and have always been creators, collaborators, chroniclers, consumers, muses, and ornaments. Within these varied roles, contradictions abound."

What's so great about Bitch is that within its pages lurks a deep truth: Pop is bad and pop is good. That is, pop mixes us up. It entangles us in contradictions about desire and repulsion, activism and passivity, acceptance and rejection, manipulation and liberation, happiness and despair. Pop is filled with freedom, and yet it constrains. Pop is belittling, and yet it is a balm. Pop keeps us locked up, and yet it might well possess the secret key. So the question, as it has always been--whether a cultural phenomenon has been "queered" or not--is OK, after we bitch about it (and we always should), then what?

2°--The Torch Marauder, "Brian," on Enter the Maestro (Triceratops Records)

What the hell is going on in this latter-day mountain murder ballad by the local pseudonymed avenger, The Torch Marauder, a veritable solo Blue Man Group that dresses up in black cape and blue face makeup? Is it about a friend's attempted suicide, a lover's tryst gone awry, a testimonial of revenge? It's hard to tell. Whatever the story is about, when The Torch Maruader launches into the chorus's gloriously weird falsetto about your/my/that/our "ooow-ooww-ooww-ooww-wee," the song becomes something far beyond stories, words, logic, or common sense. It becomes about flesh and feelings, and the space between them.

3°--Robin Hamlyn and Michael Phillips, William Blake (Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers)

Blake was, of course, Poet, capital P, and Romantic, capital R. But during his life, he was also an impoverished commercial engraver--a cartoonist!--who created his terrifying and beautiful visionary art in the underground of London's popular culture during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This catalog from the recent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art displays Blake's imaginative powers in all their subversive glory.

What remains most striking are the bodies of his figures, solid blocky clumps at once human and godly, biological and spiritual. They twist and turn, bend and arch, swim and crawl, lift and sink. They demand attention from the viewer even as they gesture and stare off the page, pointing and gazing right out of their stories to Hell below, the world all around, and heaven above.

4°--Dreams and Disillusion: Karel Teige and the Czech Avant-Garde, Grey Art Gallery, New York University; and Karel Teige/1900-1951: L'Enfant Terrible of the Czech Modernist Avant-Garde (MIT Press)

A 20th-century Blake of sorts, Karel Teige (TY-ghe) was a Czech artist who transmitted the Romantic idea that art and life could become one and the same into the Modernist movement. Like Blake, he did not lead an easy life. After a period of youthful excitement about art's social role during the first years of modern, democratic Czechoslovakia (beginning in 1918), Teige was forced into internal exile during the Nazi occupation of World War II, and went on to suffer persecution under the U.S.S.R.'s totalitarian rule of Czechoslovakia until his death in 1951. His work moved from a celebration of high and low culture with the group Devetsil (including poetry, graphic design, choreography, and commentary on film and architecture) to the strikingly surreal collages of his last years.

These collages, like Blake's engravings, remain shocking. Mixing body parts he'd clipped from commercial magazines (legs, arms, and especially women's breasts) with pictures of Modernist urban landscapes (subway tunnels, skyscrapers), images of war (planes, bombs), and objects--keys, bracelets, eyeballs--that appear as mysterious talismans, Teige created a disorienting world. In his collage visions, one struggles to make sense where none can be made, seeking meaning in the meaningless disjuncture of a modern world that was supposed to become free and orderly and wound up full of mutilation and death.

5°--Eric Ross, theremin performance before the North Carolina Museum of Art's screening of The Day the Earth Stood Still, June 1, 2001

The first time I saw someone perform on the theremin--an electronic instrument that looks like a mini-lightning rod that's played by moving one's hands through its magnetic field--Jon Spencer of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion was busy making the thing scream and cry through a distorted amplifier, essentially ramming it up his audience's ass. So, it seems perfect that the greatest player of all, featured in Steven Martin's film documentary, "Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, and Albert Galinksy's book, Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage, was a woman named Clara Rockmore (though she rocked most when performing classical compositions by the likes of Bach, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, and Ravel). None of this, however, quite prepared me for Eric Ross.

Balding and gray, slightly resembling Mr. Burns from The Simpsons, Eric Ross (pictured) stood before his theremin and a bank of synthesizers, an electric guitar strapped over his frumpy suit and tie. He told the story of Russian emigre Leon Theremin, the instrument's inventor, who wound up inventing Cold War spy equipment for the U.S.S.R. after being kidnapped in New York sometime in the late 1930s. As the audience wined and dined in classic yuppie-picnic fashion on the museum's lawn, Ross then proceeded to play a sampling of his compositions: bizarre avant-garde electronic music accompanied by surrealist words, some in Esperanto. (For a sampling, listen to Eric Ross, Theremin Summit--Live at Berlin JazzFest, available from Ty'Aya Music, As enjoyable as his strange music was, the audience's reaction was even more pleasant: True and utter bafflement, perhaps the way an audience should always receive art.

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