All posts by max

„You can criticise Taylor Swift, but not George Michael"

Once frowned upon, pop music has become a must for every music connoisseur. You get suspicious looks if you don’t have guilty pleasures, says music critic Carl Wilson in our interview and explains how we have come to love what we used to hate.

In your book ‘Let’s Talk About Love’ that came out in 2007, you analyse Céline Dions famous album of the same name and take it as a starting point to ponder the meaning of bad taste and what makes us feel ashamed of certain things we like. Do you have a lot of guilty pleasures?
I don’t have that experience with music very often anymore. Probably because I have thought so much about it over the past years. But I do get it with TV, when I see something really cheesy or fake that somehow still gets to me, like a teen soap opera. There is a vague feeling of embarrasment, when I like it. But it’s not necessarily shame because of me liking it but because of the question, if something is worthy of your time or not. Are cheesy romcoms really the best way to spend my free time?
You feel it’s a waste of time?
Not so much a waste of time but just not the best option. Instead of scrolling on Facebook I could read a book instead or spend time with my friends or family.
The philosopher Kenneth Goldsmith actually challenges the widespread assumption that “wasting time on the Internet” is a waste of time. He argues that it demands active engagement and thereby makes us more social and creative. Do you agree?
I agree, but it’s a question of proportions, I think. The complete refusal to use Facebook or watch TV because it can lead to procrastination is also not good. It’s a kind of puritanical reaction. We should be allowed to ‘waste’ some time.
Coming back to the feeling of shame. Usually you would feel ashamed of something you like but when George Michael died and I told people that I think he is overrated, I was criticized a lot and felt ashamed for actually not liking his music.
Shaming works in strange ways. At the height of George Michaels commercial success, you would have found plenty of people agreeing with you, that he is overrated. But when the artist is in the rearview mirror and no longer a ‘threat’ to the hierarchy of taste, when he or she is not part of the current popculture debate anymore, then people become far more soft on them. Taylor Swift? Sure, you can criticise her, but George Michael? We have developed our own rituals around celebrity deaths now and they do not include criticism. It’s purely based on paying tribute. That reinforces the unspeakability of any negative feelings about that artist. When Elvis died in the 1970s, it was much easier for people to privately criticise him, but now the mourning happens in public and sharing negative feelings about a deceased musician is like voicing criticism at a funeral. It’s just not allowed.
The feeling of shame vanishes over time and we now celebrate the popstars that were detested at the height of their success . Do you think that reinforces a higher acceptance of today’s bubblegum pop?
I am not sure. Take the EDM-pop duo The Chainsmokers for example, they have a lot of critics, because they are changing the trajectory of pop music. When “Let’s Talk About Love” hit the shelves ten years ago, Céline Dion was still a pop figure that people talked about and attacked. But she was granted immunity a few years back, because she is no longer an active part of the debate. Modern-day pop acts are not as fortunate. They don’t have the benefit of nostalgia.
Because nostalgia makes everything better – even a past we disliked.
Exactly, Céline Dion also represents Titanic and 90s fashion faux pas and especially for people between 30 and 40, she also represents their youth.
Why do you think guilty pleasures are such a big part of our current culture? Is it just nostalgia?
No, that would be too simplistic. Our taste is also our identity. We define ourselves by what we like. Taste can be at the core of a group identity as well. It is such a strong instrument of differenciation. Then there is also the perception, that art is supposed to be enlightening instead of just hedonistic. That makes it hard to openly like something that is not considered high-brow culture. The guilty pleasure is a way around that.
But you have to earn it. The guilty pleasure is only allowed because you have proven that you have good taste. As in listening to five Sonic Youth songs allows you to listen to one song by Britney Spears.
That’s a way musical taste has evolved in the past decade or two. Guilty pleasures were not a thing in the 70s or 80s. It would have been dubious. Because you had your musical genre, and you stuck to it. But if you only listen to what the cool kids listen to today, it makes you seem narrow-minded. Pop has become an obligation for music nerds. Your taste profile needs a broad variety of styles, not all of them should be considered good.
It’s fascinating how bad taste has become an extremely positive concept. There are bad taste parties celebrating the absolute worst of the worst. It has stripped bad taste of its own meaning.
It’s a countercultural battle that was fought and won. The tag bad taste is now owned by people that are very proud of their taste and consider it good. Bad taste has become a transgressive phenomenon. The director John Waters has used the term to delineate who’s square and who’s edgy, for example.
But what is then, objectively, bad and how can you differentiate between good bad and genuinely bad?
That’s a hard question but I think that we are in a much more sophisticated place today when it comes to taste because we are being exposed to so much more. There is no scarcity of culture anymore and so we have come to accept the validity of different worlds and trends. That also means, that we are no longer so serious about our own taste and think we have to defend it at every occasion. That was certainly different a few decades ago. I think that also resulted in us not being so bent on judging everything straight away. There is still genuinly bad taste but we show mercy a lot of the time. Also, shame doesn’t need to be a bad experience.
How so?
In the same way that sadness is also celebrated or at least positively connoted. It’s a human reaction that tells us something about ourself. It’s not really a utopia for me if everybody has a wide-open, let-it-all-hang-out-sense of culture. Shame has its place in culture. The problem starts, when we start to take advantage of things in a hostile way, when we start shaming and attacking others.
I recently read about the Disco Demolition Night. A radio station called upon its audience in 1979 to destroy disco by publicly burning disco records before a local baseball game. The promotion stunt ended in a riot and was expressive of racism and homophobia. That’s the shaming that goes too far.
At that time, disco was extremely commercially dominant. The strange thing is that it was music for the marginalised: gays and the black community. Then there was a white, homophobic backclash because of others gaining ground. The same happens today with the Trump presidency.
Is it fair to say that although pop music is more generally accepted today, it is still the primary target for critique?
It’s an easy prey. Pop music is like parents: you hate it when you are young and then you patch up things as you get older. It’s also by definition the most mainstream music and we live in the most egocentric of times. Individuality is sacred and pop is the opposite of that. Also, pop is predominantly understood as a female genre because of its focus on feelings and emotions. Most men do not want to be associated with that. Those prejudices persist.
I think it also comes down to authenticity. Emotions are also the centre of all other musical genres but the perception is different. Listening to Björk sing about heartbreak feels more genuine than hearing Céline Dion do the same thing.
It depends on how you see the world. Many people do not question the facade of the pop commercial world. It feels genuine. Connecting to a sad Björk song is probably something that most people do alone and in their own way. But pop music is more social and it is an experience you share with many people. It evokes the presence of a public, even when you are alone. Pop is not an introspective form of music. It is not a dark night of the soul.
Would you describe artist like Björk or Nick Cave as authentic?
They are definitely genuine but it depends what you mean by authenticity. I mean Nick Cave is a master of theatrical performance. You don’t go to a Nick Cave gig in order to find truth. His fans prefer his kind of artificiality over the one that pop acts put on. It depends on what you are willing to believe.
Then again, an artist like Father John Misty uses ‘fakeness’ in order to create an authentic stage persona. He is honest about being fake.
That is the oldest trick in art: putting on a mask to tell the truth. Father John Misty opens the engine room of showbusiness and shows us, in a very ironic manner, how artistic showmanship works. Spontaneity is a rare occurrence in performance and he is not trying to hide that.
And irony helps him get away with it
Irony is an aquired taste. Father John Misty appeals to people that like art from a safe distance. To other people, irony can seem hostile.
Could Céline Dion pull off irony?
Her fans like that she has a sense of humour about herself but she is serious about what she is doing and would never mock the performance and the audience for believing in it.
We talked a lot about bad taste. What, in conclusion, do you think is good taste then?
Good taste is probably more individual than bad taste. I don’t think there is objectively good taste but there is consensus taste: Things that you and the people around you can agree on. Sometimes that consensus is quite big, other times it is not. But it is never a given.
Carl Wilson is Slate’s music critic and the author of several books.

"I feel like my head is just a camera on a tripod"

Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson embraces melancholy with a unique playfulness. His works are demonstrations of how thin the dividing line between happiness and sorrow can be. We talked to him about the male body in art, cemetery strolls and why life should be like Bohemian Rhapsody.
While I was doing research for this interview, I watched some clips of your performances on Youtube and noticed that although I am quite familiar with your work, I have never seen any of it in real life. Is that something you concern yourself with? The way people take in your art.
No, not really. I don’t have a webpage and I’m not on facebook, so I don’t upload anything. But I really like it when people do it for me, when they take videos of my performances and put it up there. They take my work from the art spaces and share it with the world. There’s something liberating in that.
Do you think that Youtube is the right place for your art? The experience of watching a clip of a performance online and watching the actual performance is obviously very different.
Watching my art on Youtube is like looking at a painting in a book. Of course it is not the same. You just get a glimpse of what the whole thing is about. My video pieces very much depend on the image and sound quality and you just don’t have that experience on Youtube. The installations are much more kick-ass.
Digital technologies not only enable people to record and share the art they are witnessing but also to watch it wherever they are. The incentive to travel to a specific piece of art has been reduced, I feel.
Which is a shame because I like this whole Holy-Grail-approach to art, that you have to make an actual effort to see it. But having everything at your disposal can be very convenient. Whenever an uncle or aunt visits and asks me about my latest installations, I can just show them some clips on Youtube. It also reminds me how sloppy I am, when it comes to the Internet. I just don’t really use it that much. I am like an old person. Although, they are pretty good with these things nowadays. So maybe I am like a lazy old person.
Do you feel that performance and multimedia arts are better suited to make that transition from real to digital than, say, sculpture or other, more traditional visual arts?
I am not sure. Visual arts are very much about experiencing and connecting with what you see. A piece only comes alive, when somebody sees it. Now, the viewer also spreads the art he or she sees by posting it online. In that way, the viewer becomes a doer. Performance arts are of course very well suited for this, because they are so dynamic. There is constant movement, which sort of mirrors the ways in which we consume art today. It’s not a static experience; it’s always in flux.
Which is very true for performance art. With a painting or a sculpture, the artist has the luxury of seeking shelter in the studio until he or she is happy with the piece and chooses to present it to the audience. A performance art piece is live and always bears the risk of imminent failure or imperfection. Do you feel that pressure?
Actually, I also like to approach my paintings like that. I tell myself that I don’t have a thousand chances to start from scratch. I really focus and try to do it in that specific moment. At the core, I think all art is about spontaneity. If you would try to reproduce a piece of art at a different moment, the result would probably differ a lot. It’s really the spark of genius that makes a great art piece; the rest is just time and labor. And that also produces some vulnerability. The safety of the studio does not guarantee success – quite the opposite.

RAGNAR KJARTANSSON God, 2007 single channel video Duration: 30 minutes Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik
Commissioned by Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Vienna & The Living Art Museum, Reykjavik. Photo: Rafael Pinho

Marina Abramovic once told me during an interview, that she needs the risk of failure in order to be creative. Do you feel that too?
I don’t feel that risk of failure during performance pieces. It’s more a take-it-or-leave-it-situation. I come from a theatre background; so performing feels very natural to me. The only time I feel exposed and vulnerable is when I perform something other than performance art. I was in bands when I was younger and that always felt alien and strange.
How so?
Playing music always felt a bit weird, I just feel like an impostor. Music is something very serious in a way. When you don’t hit the notes right or you play too fast or slow, the whole thing crumbles. Performance art is more forgiving, I feel. It’s more the concept behind it that matters. You can do whatever you want, as long as you do it in a convincing way. It gets its legitimacy from your own belief in it. Visual art is always open for interpretation.
Music has more set rules?
Don’t get me wrong: I love music. I am obsessed with it. My role models are mostly musicians. I don’t want to generalize, because ultimately it’s a very personal opinion. Being a musician never came naturally to me, so I personally feel that being an artist gives me much more freedom than being a musician. That’s not to say that that is the case for everybody. I tried hard to be a musician but every time I stood on stage, I just saw the disbelief in the eyes of the audience. And I believed them.
It’s fascinating that you would then choose to continue with visual and performing arts instead of doing something that does not rely on an audience.
It’s not the audience that frightens me; it’s the feeling of not being able to perform with full confidence in what I am doing. The main lesson I took from it is that I should not excuse myself for what I do and just be kick-ass. I had a hard time doing that in music. My godmother, who is a musician, once told me that you should always remember that as an artist, nobody cares about you. Your insecurities are irrelevant to the audience. The audience only cares about the art piece or the song. It’s a good thing to keep in mind.
Don’t you think that the audience very often reads a lot into what you are doing. They question your motives and connect everything to your private life, I feel.
I would not do it, but I know it happens. It’s not necessarily something that happens during live performances, but certainly they question or analyze you as an artist overall. The funny thing is that this is so prone to misinterpretation. I would always be more concerned about the artists that seem completely happy, than the ones that seem to suffer. Growing up, Michael Jackson, Prince and Whitney Houston were the good guys whereas somebody like Nick Cave was regarded a troubled mind and soul. Look at how their lives have developed and you can see why we should not judge a book by its cover. There is a façade of happiness in pop music that conceals the suffering. On the other hand, the dark characters are not necessarily dark, they might just be interested in the full spectrum of human existence – and there is a lot of suffering and agony in that.
That reminds me of your video piece God in which you sing “Sorrow conquers Happiness” to the melody of a very happy and jolly tune. It’s a striking example of how close sorrow and happiness often are.
Sorrow is inevitable and we should face it. We will become sick and eventually die. We just have to be ready for it. A memento mori can make you a happier because sorrow will not take you by surprise when it happens. Being aware of sorrow is the best tactic to deal with it. I live quite close to a cemetery and I love taking walks there. I don’t find it saddening or depressing but rather comforting.
Death is a universal experience and no matter how many people die in the most tragic ways, the world still keeps on turning. I guess there is comfort in realizing how little your own existence matters in the grand scheme of things.
Exactly! We should not take our own existence so seriously. The artist Marcel Duchamp got it right. His tombstone says: Besides, it’s always the others that die. That’s a good last statement.

RAGNAR KJARTANSSON: The End – Venezia, 2009. Six-month performance during which 144 paintings were made. The Iceland Pavilion, Palazzo Michiel dal Brusà, 53rd Venice Biennale, 2009. Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavík. Photo: Rafael Pinho

Would you feel offended if I would tell you that I find your work extremely entertaining?
No, why should I?
I feel entertaining is the last thing an artist wants to be.
I hope people find my work entertaining. Entertainment has become synonymous with fake or meaningless forms of expression, but I don’t think that’s fair. Very often, things are entertaining at first and only reveal themselves as something more substantial after some more reflection.
But isn’t there a common belief, that the theatrics of entertainment and authenticity are not compatible. Art is very dichotomous in that respect.
Yes, that belief is widespread. My grandfather was very close to the Swiss artist Dieter Roth who concerned himself a lot with notions of authenticity. To someone like me, who comes from a theatre-family that was very inspiring. I wanted to find a middle-ground between authenticity and theatrics.
To quote Dieter Roth: When faced with a choice, do both.
That’s my motto, yes. I do believe that entertainment is authentic. That’s why we connect with it. Why would you cry during a movie or song if it was not authentic? It’s only when entertainment is bad that we notice it is fake. Entertainment that stays true to itself is never fake.
You have said in previous interviews that we are living in the female century and argued that feminism had a strong impact on your work. Do you feel that there is a difference between male and female art? Especially when it comes to performance art in which the body plays an important role.
In my pieces I really like to play with ideas of the male body because it is so blank in a way. There is much more freedom. The female body is a projection surface for controversy. When art is about the female body, it is immediately heavy and politicized. When I do feature female bodies in my pieces, it is a very conscious choice and I am aware that I might cause controversy or step over the line. Feminist art took control over the female body in art history. So as a male artist, you have to be very careful, respectful and aware of that.

Ragnar Kjartansson Woman in E, 2016 performance Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik Originally presented and organized by Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, Detroit, Michigan. Photo: Andrew Miller

The female body is linked to much more body shame because society still wants women to act and look a certain way. The urge to go against that must be a powerful impetus to create art that breaks those chains.
Yes, there is all this violent patriarchic oppression you have to fight. Having a male body is just so unproblematic in comparison. I often feel like my head is just a camera on a tripod. I am so unconscious of my body because there are not as many oppressing aesthetics around it. Men also have body issues but the difference is that society does not judge them as much.
Another thing that had a big impact on your art is repetition. I connect repetition with boredom and ineffectiveness, which are very negative notions. Is that the same for you?
We do have a negative understanding of repetition. We complain about life being repetitive and want it to be a totally new thing every new day. I recently read Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa and she writes about this woman she met, who told her that she would want to repeat her life in the exact same way, not changing a thing. Blixen writes about how dull and sad that is. She said a small melody can be repeated, but a symphony can not be repeated It ends and you don’t want to hear it again. That’s how Blixen wanted her life to be. That’s a bold statement. When I think about life in terms of music: wouldn’t it be fab to look back and see it as Bohemian Rhapsody?

"I chose the Oprah story"

Stephin Merritt by Marcelo Krasilcic

Stephin Merritt, the mastermind behind The Magnetic Fields, is not a man of many words. And yet, his new album tells the story of his entire life. A conversation about false memories, big post-its and Kate Bush.
As the title indicates, your new album 50 Song Memoir is not just an album but also your autobiography. Each one of the songs mirrors one year in your life. I must admit, I was quite stunned to hear that the least autobiographical person in the music business is about to release one.
I am not the least autobiographical person in music.
So who is?
Kate Bush. Unless she actually robs banks.
Like in her song There goes a Tenner
Or was trapped under ice. But I doubt that. It’s not an experience most people survive.
So this album …
…I wonder what she does all day long … what is her personal life like? I hope she writes a memoir. A song memoir maybe. Like mine. Maybe it becomes a thing. I hope so.
I wonder why musicians would go and write an actual book memoir when they could just do it through music. Why would they choose another medium for this?
[long pause] I don’t know. I did it. But it took some convincing. I would have never done it if my record label would not have suggested it to me – not a chance.
Because it is not something you would have come up with or did you need outside confirmation that it is a good idea?
Both maybe. I think I have a very boring life. All musicians do once they become famous and turn 21. The whole thing is more just a frame for me to work with. It was the same with 69 Love Songs. I mean who wants to listen to 69 love songs?
Was your life more exciting before you became a musician?
Of course. It was more unique.
Because life as a musician always follows the same patterns?
You record, you go on tour, you come home, you break up, you start writing about the break-up, you record, you tour. You miss Canada, you write a song about missing Canada in the middle of which you realize you are actually re-writing White Christmas which is about missing New York. It’s a cliché of a cliché.
You mean Joni Mitchell’s River.
Yes. It’s an example of how being away on tour makes you miss home and then you realize that it is the same for every musician. Touring is an essential part of our life and other people don’t have a clue about it. So what’s the point of writing about it? I spend so much time in airports, I practically live there.
Would you do another song memoir? Like a follow-up?
[pause] 100 song memoir is going to be the next. 75 is too soon.
Have you read Grace Jones’ memoir?
No, I have it but I deliberately made sure to not read any biography-related stuff during the making of this record. When I’m finished with this tour and have nothing to do, I will gladly take it up and read.
Are records not by definition biographical? Lyrics do not form in a vacuum but often reflect situations you lived through.
Your musical taste is in there too. Being influenced by music from your past is also biographical in a way. Every song is autobiographical because it reveals what you want to hear. Unless you just want to make money. There was a rumour in the 90s that Madonna does not like her own stuff and is actually just a funk fan. I hope that is not true because it sounds very bleak.
Listening to the record, I noticed that there are quite a lot of musical references, but none regarding your own music. There is no song about recording an album or things like that. Why?
[Long Pause] There are a lot of things I did not write about. I did not want to write about the other people in the band. I also feel that so much has been written about us already, that I saw no need to add anything. There were more interesting issues.
Like what?
In 1999, our album 69 Love Songs came out. But it was also the year I was put in contact with my real father for the first time. So for 1999 I chose to write about that and do the song Fathers in the clouds. The album had more impact on my life but is it also the better song? I was 34 years old and had never met my father. There is more emotion in that. I basically chose the Oprah Winfrey story. The human interest story always beats the Wikipedia story. It’s the same with other bands. There are no songs about the experience of making or even listening to Pet Sounds or Revolver. You wouldn’t want that to become a thing.
I would.
[Pause] A genre of songs that are actually record reviews. It is a good idea, yes.
Some songs of the record are pretty straight forward but others, I am completely clueless or at least puzzled about.
Which ones?
Judy Garland for example. I know what it is about, but you were four years old and probably not able to understand the significance of Judy Garlands death and the Stonewall riots.
True. The song is actually more about us trying to get to Woodstock and being stuck in traffic. But of course Garlands death and Stonewall became significant to me much later and so I wanted to incorporate it.
Some of these songs are based completely on personal memory, others draw from collective memory …
…my memories from when I was four years old would not fill the lines of a 200-words-song.
Have you seen it in the snow? Is an interesting one because it’s 2001 and it’s New York but it sort of leaves out the big event: 9/11.
That song I actually wrote in 2001. It is an artefact from that year. The same is true for Ethan Frome which is a song from 1988.
Memory is something we use to make sense of the past and to learn for the present and future. Have you reached any conclusions about the past fifty years while working on this album?
[long pause]No, not really. Maybe at some point in the future, I will learn something about my past by listening to this album. I have not gathered deep insights about my life nor can I give advice on ageing.
Were there memories you were reluctant to use because they would put you in a bad place mentally?
[long pause] My first memory is me rolling around in a birdcage under a big piano and on a Persian carpet.
Very visual.
There is every reason to believe, that this memory is completely made-up or from a dream. The other memory from that time is me at a tennis court in Baden-Baden, where we lived, facing a castle in the light of the setting sun.
Sounds a lot less frightening.
But does not make for a good song.
The birdcage on the other hand …
…would make a great video.
Is there a memory from making this album that might be important to you many years from now?
[pause] The importance of whiteboards. And post-its. Colour-coded. Also: having an assistant.
I doubt that will make a good song for your 100 Song Memoir.
I will not, no.
Maybe a good video.
[pause] You can buy really big post-its. Like ten inches. Very practical when you have big group meetings, so even people in the back can read them. As my vision deteriorates, I will probably need those. A whole wall of giant post-its that my assistant will constantly re-arrange.
Maybe there is a song in there after all.
Assistant wanted: must be good with ladders.

"The female body is a minefield"

Alexandra Kleeman

In her book “You too can have a body like mine”, writer Alexandra Kleeman describes the absurdity and shame that is linked to our bodies and their perception. We talked to her about the ideal world of pornography, body perfection, and why she distrusts anyone who dislikes Adam Sandler movies.
How much time do you consciously think about your body or appearance?
It varies quite a lot. When I write, the page is completely distracting. I sometimes even forget to eat when I am writing because if I remembered that I had to feed my body, I would also have to remember all the other things that go along with it. It is a very unhealthy attitude but it is healthy to me because it helps me to stay productive and therefore emotionally balanced.
The human body and looks are central themes in your book “You too can have a body like mine”. The characters seem to be very conscious about their bodies and how they look and feel – up to the point of complete obsession. It got me thinking about my own body and how I perceive it and I would say that most of the time when I think about it, I do so unconsciously because it has become a habit.
A lot of my habits for taking care of my body, habits for making my body appear to myself as my body, are deeply engrained. Processes become automatic, we do them without deciding to do them, and then we naturalize the end result. When I see myself 100% unmade-up, I feel like I resemble myself less than if I had just the eyeliner on. Our body rituals don’t take up that much mental space but they do take up a lot of time. When I think about the time I spend doing my routine – scrubbing, exfoliating, etc. – I feel cheated. It is time I could have spent working on something else.
In the book you write, that it is no wonder we care so much about our looks because it is the one thing that sets us apart from each other. It is a very true and yet also a very superficial judgement at the same time.
In terms of our culture, there is all this rhetoric about how people are not all that different from each other. You can shape your inner self to become a different person, one that fits the social surroundings. Our insides are undifferentiated; you can mould them like a piece of clay. In some ways the materiality of our outer selves offers resistance to this idea of infinite changeability. This surface can be altered, but only through labor and only with some pain or discomfort. It refutes the myth of transformation as a painless and liberating process.
The protagonist of the book, a girl called A, is afraid that her roommate, B, is trying to copy her looks and behaviour in order to come as close to her as possible. But it seems like it is not B’s strange behaviour that worries A but the fact that she can be copied and is therefore not unique.
Even though A is the person who is on stronger footing in the friendship, she starts to feel her personality as a delicate configuration of traits that can all be copied or even done better by someone else. She is afraid to realize that her personality is not what she wants it to be and she is nervous that others are able to see it too.

“We are under constant production”

The book’s focus on our body shows how much shame there is involved when we are conscious about our body and its behaviour. A lot of what is very natural, are things we want to cover up or at least ignore.
Yes, we have a measure of control over our bodies so we take on the responsibility of presenting it in an attractive way. We carefully produce images of ourselves that are supposed to reflect our personalities, our inner selves. If you turn on the TV, you can see how the pressure to perfect, fill, and define faces has constricted facial expression, and therefore the expression of emotion. It is almost as if these famous faces are trying to transcend their personhood, turn themselves into a flawless personified brand. When we reckon with our own body, we reckon with a physicality that is in a constant rehearsal process. We are never a finished product. We are under constant production. But there is a lot of shame involved because artificial personalities have become the benchmark, professionalized, weaponized bodies with personalities to match. You cannot compete with perfection.
It seems to me that the body shame in the book is exclusively female. The male character, C, seems very at ease with himself – except for his porn addiction. Was that your intention?
There are probably more similarities between the female and male world of beauty than we might see at first. I think that the female way of dealing with body insecurities is more open and direct, whereas men absorb and internalize these concerns. Men also worry about their weight or their body hair but are trained to reflect on it less, and are definitely trained to keep that type of anxiety contained. Maybe a man’s body also has fewer problem areas than a woman’s – at least in public perception. Our eyes are drawn toward areas that we’ve been taught can betray us, and the female body is a minefield.
C’s fixation on porn is striking because it highlights a pressure that many men feel: to be a true stallion that can satisfy all the women. His fixation is also superficial but on a different level.
When they select men for porn movies, it is less often about types and more often about performance. Women have to fit a certain type or role, they determine the genre of the film. Both are being objectified but in different ways. I wanted to include porn in the book because it does so much nowadays to shape how we perceive the act of sex. With porn, you are transported to this virtual place where you can be anyone in any given scene. It is like a scaffolding for your own fantasies. You even have the luxury of getting bored. In reality, you are more restricted and under pressure. The pleasure from having actual sex with a physical body and the pleasure derived from the limitless, virtual world of porn are profoundly different and yet very linked. It’s maybe similar to comparing books and e-readers.
C takes fantasy – in the form of porn – and tries to put it onto reality by making it part of his relationship with A. He thereby glorifies it because in contrast to the real world, the virtual porn world is a place where no desire is rejected. It is the ideal world of fulfilled desires.
I understand that it is controversial to glorify porn because it is loaded with problems and hidden power structures. Accepting or even liking porn is surely a minority standpoint and as a writer that is interesting to me. I don’t want to focus on how deadening or flattening porn can be, I want to explore why we like it, because it is hyperreal. I think of it as a technologically enhanced imagination space, that helps you expand your fantasies. But as I write in the book, it can also have a very distancing effect. There is a very subjective mixture of fantasies and you might not occupy the same fantasy as the person you are physically engaged with. The situations in the book are designed to show A sharing the same experience with other people but highlighting her discomfort with it. She is maladapted to C’s porn obsession.

“Food now exists for aesthetic pleasure”

One of the sentences that stayed with me after finishing the book is when A says that the female body never truly belongs to the woman. Do you feel that way?
I really feel that to be true, but at the same time I want to assure you that I am happy with myself. It is a problem that has been of interest to me for a long time and especially while working on this book. Being female in public, is an invitation for other people to comment on your looks and behaviour. Your body is unavoidably open to engagement from others who expect you to also engage with them.
Especially with the main character called A, it is easy to draw the conclusion that a lot from the book is autobiographical. The writer Chris Kraus once claimed that as a woman, it is almost impossible to be a-personal and that everything you do is understood to reflect your own experience. Do you feel that too?
I can relate to that, yes. But to write autobiographically, to mirror myself in this way, I’d need to know more about myself than I currently do. Because many events in the book seem out of this world, it should be clear, that this is a fictional account. A is constructed from many feelings and fears that I have, but she is not me. In some ways she exhibits the raw version of fears that I’ve trained myself to metabolize, fears that society defuses. It’s true that most foods were once living flesh—animal or plant matter. At the same time, it’s not useful to society or useful for an individual to keep this fact alive in your day-to-day reality. With A, I wanted to explore life in the modern world without the desensitizing calluses and coping mechanisms I’ve developed.
Food is another central theme of the book. The characters either seem to develop an obsession with it or feel complete disgust. It mirrors how we as a society glorify food but don’t want to know where it comes from or what effect it might have on our bodies. I would argue that people love food but hate the act of eating.
If you check Instagram, you can see how food has become completely detached from its primary use. It now exists for aesthetic pleasure. In a way, we are always asked to define ourselves through our eating habits. Food is the best metaphor for the relationship between an individual and his environment; it is the thing that links our insides to the outside world. In this sense, it’s a problem when that relation becomes visual rather than primarily nutritional.
A refuses to eat anything that is not purely artificial because she fears that by doing so, she would integrate herself into the food chain and be swallowed by something bigger than her eventually. Her reasons are not moral but purely self-protective, it seems.
You could argue that. Have you heard about the research they are doing on extreme caloric restriction? They were feeding one group of monkeys a normal calories-diet and another group a very restricted amount of calories. Over the course of five years, they found that consuming far calories made the monkey appear youthful. They speculated that the more one eats, the more the body is remade using the new materials—which means more chances of making mistakes in the replacement. In short, the finding was that everything you eat in a way speeds up your demise. This makes sense on a technical level, but is the point of life really to resemble yourself for as long as possible?

“A strange world can also offer comfort”

The novel describes the typical anxieties and problems of millennials yet there is very little indicating this: the Internet is virtually absent, instead the characters are all obsessed with TV for example. Was that intentional?
People say that TV is a dying medium and it certainly no longer exists in the way it used to when I was growing up in the 1990s. But it is still a very communal thing, as opposed to the more solipsistic, fractured content of the Internet. When you watch a movie on TV, you know that many other people are also watching this at that very moment. There is a big difference between watching TV all by yourself and watching it with other people – especially when you watch something that is generally regarded as bad or purely entertaining.
Because in a group you could not confess that you actually like what you see if you watch something like Sharknado?
If you watch Sharknado with other people, you adopt the reactions of the group. It is hard to have a private, distinct emotional experience when it is in conflict with the emotions surrounding you. But it is possible to have real emotions in a fake or staged emotional situation. One of the first things that got me watching TV again after college was the TV-series The Bachelorette. I watched this personal drama unfold and sometimes I couldn’t tell real from fake. Obviously the scenery and everything was completely fake but some of the emotions were very real.
I feel like your book does a similar thing by portraying people with real human emotions and fears in a completely surreal environment – not comparing it to The Bachelorette though.
I’m fine with it being compared to that show (laughs). You are right, there are real emotions in the book that take place in an unreal world. The characters in the book struggle with their environment but they are not sure whether the outside world has really gone mad or if they are just unable to cope with it. Also, coming back to The Bachelorette, we have already created a world that is so strange that I as a writer felt compelled to go one step stranger and create this bizarre nature. The only way to de-familiarize an already strangely familiar world is to push it even further. A strange world can also offer comfort.
How so?
I know that romcoms are completely unrealistic and bizarre but I find great comfort in them. I distrust anyone that doesn’t like Adam Sandler movies. I don’t watch romcoms with other people because I don’t want to know what they think about it, I don’t want to hear their critique. I just want to watch the rightness unfold: the good guy getting the girl, the bad guy losing out. I feel that romcoms are modern day myths. They tell a story we aspire to, a pattern we find over and over in the stories we tell about ourselves.
In a way, modern myths are tricky because they are no longer set in a land of fairies or dragons, so it becomes harder for us to understand them in purely mythical terms. We think that a perfect relationship is possible and get frustrated if it does not happen to us.
Yes, we believe that perfect communication in a relationship is possible. There are guides and TV shows telling you how to achieve it but nobody knows what it would be like because it does not exist. I honestly think we need new myths and they should be as detached from reality as possible. Anything else makes it too easy to substitute the myth for a reality.

"Shame is absolutely necessary"

Man wearing hat with card "Bread or revolution"

Jennifer Jacquet argues that shame is often our most potent instrument to enforce social norms and punish those that go against them. For her, shame is not just a strong emotion but a powerful political weapon.

Your book is called „Is shame necessary?“ Is it?
Shame is absolutely necessary. At the same time, it is a very dangerous and fickle instrument. It is difficult to characterize it in any general way.

Jennifer Jacquet

Jennifer Jacquet is an assistant professor at New York University and the author of “Is Shame Necessary?”. Read more about her on her website.

Because it can be completely different things depending on the situation or context it is being used?
There is certainly a dose-response issue, as well as an issue of proportionality. Sometimes a very mild form of shaming is being used for a severe transgression and vice-versa. Especially online we see a lot of intense shaming for sometimes very little reason at all. The cases that we are most drawn to are cases where the shaming is really disproportionate. Cases where shaming is used against innocent victims. That’s in part why we paint shame with a broad brush and label it a bad thing. That was my impetus for the book. I wanted to show that sometimes shame can be a positive thing.
In the book, you argue that shame is very often a weapon of last resort. How effective can it be, especially in an arena like international politics?
We should think about it as a tool of last resort, but on the other hand it might sometimes be the only available option – especially in international politics with issues like climate change commitments or human rights violations. Reputation is something indispensable and something every political actor cherishes. Shaming bad actors can sometimes be the best way to express social values. In the past, there were more sanctions, like trade sanctions, tariffs, and boycotts, that could be used but these have been diluted over time by agreements made, for instance, at the WTO. Reputation has become one of the only areas where countries and citizens can push back.

“Shame works in relation to norms”

Have shaming tactics worked in international politics? The UN is one big naming-and-shaming-arena and yet is often powerless.
There is evidence that it can work. There is evidence that in the absence of shaming campaigns, things would be much worse in areas like human rights. It is not a perfect tool but no form of punishment is. The problem on the state-level is that states have no conscience and sovereignty grants them a certain moral immunity, which can make them more impermeable to shame. We might expect that companies built on public reputation would be much more vulnerable to shaming than countries. Globalization has created so many regulatory vacuums. In some cases, we can’t wait for legislation to catch up. Shame is our best option to try to regulate certain kinds of behaviors.
The problem with international issues like climate change is that they are not just linked to one or two states but to almost all of them which makes shaming harder.
Shame often has more traction in small groups, but the real thing that mattes is how widely held the beliefs are. An issue like climate change is relatively new. Shame has a lot to do with rules and shared social values, and it helps if those rules have been established for some time, such as the rules of war or human rights or an obligation to vote. When shame fails, it is most often because the standards have not been established firmly enough. Shame can only work if there is a norm or standard that is disrespected, but I have confidence that action on climate change is reaching a new and global moral imperative.
But norms are very different and often in conflict: A bank manager has a responsibility towards his shareholders to make a maximum profit but that is often in conflict with his responsibility towards society at large.
Quarterly returns used to be the gold standard of publicly traded corporate metrics. Now more and more corporations, including banks, are keeping track of other things, including reputation with the public and its customers. This is what has led to the success of groups like BankTrack, which exposes the banks that are most heavily invested in coal and other fossil fuels. Partially as a result of their work, which relies on shaming, several very big banks have vowed to stop investing in new fossil fuel operations. I agree with you that profits and larger social values are in conflict, and the banks are, more and more, going to have to choose whose side they are on.

“Donald Trump is the perfect bad apple”

In the book, you talk a lot about “bad apples” – individuals that go against norms and thereby ruining the advantages of obeying the rules. If someone will start smoking in a non-smoking environment, other smokers might be inclined to do it too. It becomes contagious.
And it’s not just about contagion but also sometimes, in certain problems, just a few bad apples can ruin things for everybody else. A very good example is the trade in endangered wildlife. You might have 99% of people against the trade in endangered species, and not participating in it. However, just 1% of people engaging in the trade are capable of driving many animals to extinction. Carbon emissions are another example: if big polluter countries like China or the US are not on board to reduce emissions, other countries will be less inclined to curb their emissions since they would be paying the price for the damage done by others, while the bad apples went on polluting.
Benjamin Franklin argued that it takes many good deeds to build a reputation but only one bad deed to lose it…
…unless you are Donald Trump. He is a perfect example of a bad apple. Now people think it’s acceptable to be racist, misogynist or not pay taxes. His dismissiveness of the system has made certain kinds of behaviors and attitudes socially acceptable to a large group of people. He is changing the rules, but also our attitude toward the rules.
Would you agree that there are always ways to cope with shame and losing your reputation?
The very rich and the very poor seem to be the most immune to shaming. The poor because they have nothing to lose and the rich because they are insulated from the shame or can always try to buy themselves a good reputation. Coping with shame is easier for groups or states because they do not feel ashamed because they lack a consciousness. Shame is a very personal emotion, and individuals have a harder time coping with it than groups do.
You argue in the book that shame works because it can scale whereas a feeling like guilt does not. But often companies try to escape the shaming by putting guilt on individuals – the consumers. The shamed have become the shamers.
That is the consequence of neoliberalism in which individual consumption is at the core of everything. Chevron ran a campaign in Washington D.C. in 2008 that read “I will unplug stuff more” or “I will take my golf clubs out of the trunk of my car” with an individual’s face above the statement. The problem of high emissions that is produced by companies like Chevron and Exxon is blamed on individual consumers. The consumer became the scapegoat. That is an absurd view of responsibility given how locked into a system of fossil fuels we are, in part because of the efforts of major fossil fuel corporations.
Shame can also be misused by one company to harm its competitors and gain a market advantage.
Yes, you see fossil fuel companies jockeying for their place on the hierarchy, like how BP tried to call itself “Beyond Petroleum”. You can shame companies like Exxon or BP or you can just stigmatize fossil fuels, which means that any company involved with fossil fuels will be considered partly responsible. I think moralizing the commodity is a smart move. We stigmatized slavery itself, not only the companies that participated in it.

“Shame is being overused”

I sometimes feel that shame is being overused by consumers today because they see that it works against companies. Shaming a company on social media has much more public effect than calling a customer hotline and blaming them there. But once you have a hammer, everything resembles a nail and shame is being used for the most banal things.
Yes, that is a problem. Shame is being overused, and we’re using it excessively against each other, too. There is even an app that alerts your friends every time you hit the snooze button in the morning. Shame is most powerful and should be reserved for serious social problems that we all share.

Because it is being overused we might reach a point where shaming is being shamed.

We are already there. There is a documentary about the politician Anthony Wiener who was involved in multiple sex and infidelity scandals. There is a great moment where a woman screams “We don’t care about his private life, we are from the Bronx”. She was shaming the shamers. There is a backlash against the overuse of shame. We all have things that we can be shamed about and we have to be careful to not become a society of finger-pointers, but rather aim shame well and cautiously at those genuinely doing the most harm to widely held social values.

"Nobody is safe from psychosis"

Have you ever believed that you are already dead or the star of a Reality-TV series? Psychiatrist Joel Gold has seen his fair share of delusions and believes that our culture has more impact on it, than we might think. A conversation about Donald Trump copycats and our vulnerability to insanity.
In your book Suspicious Minds, you describe how culture shapes madness. How does it?
Throughout the history of mankind, our culture has influenced the content of our delusions. There are many forms of delusions such as paranoid or religious delusions. The forms stay largely the same but the content of the delusions changes over time. In post-revolutionary France, many people that suffered from the grandiose delusions that they were Napoleon. Today a person with a grandiose delusion might believe he is a TV celebrity. Thirty years ago, some paranoid people might have believed that they were being targeted by the CIA or KGB, today it might be ISIS or the NSA.

Photo by Elizabeth Graham
Dr. Joel Gold is the author of a new book, “Suspicious Minds, How Culture Shapes Madness.” He’s giving a talk about the book at Greenlight Bookstore on the 24th.

Madness is always updated?
Yes, but the more controversial question is: can the environment actually induce madness when it would not have otherwise manifested itself in a different environment? Are there circumstances or environments that are likely to cause psychosis? These are fundamental questions.
Distressing situations are obviously fostering mental illness but can they induce it then?
There is actually evidence that shows that the opposite can be true, that in very stressful or painful situations like war, some people with mental illnesses actually do better. They pull themselves together. There are a lot of theories about this but I think that if somebody’s external and internal world match, things make more sense to them. In situations like these, your suspicion or your fears are legitimate, not irrational. But of course in many people war can induce anxiety or depression. In our book, my brother and I argue that environments like the surveillance state and our culture in which seemingly anybody can become a star without any special talents, might be prone to induce delusions. I think the Truman Show delusion could be such a manifestation.
You coined the term the Truman Show delusion which is the belief that one is the star in a reality-TV series and that the world surrounding you is completely fake – just like in the famous movie The Truman Show.
It might be an old delusion in a new guise but the content is new. That specific belief did not exist 200 years ago. But I don’t think that the movie caused the delusion. Some people with this delusion had it before they had ever seen the movie – if they had seen it at all. But many people who have this experience feel it confirmed when they see the movie. It perfectly encapsulates their feelings. The movie is a scaffolding around which the delusion is built.

“Delusions are social in nature”

Delusional people often share the same stories or beliefs. What is it about a certain narrative that makes it so credible for delusional people?
My brother and I believe that delusions are social in nature; our minds are wired to negotiate the social world. There is a part of our brain that we have labelled for descriptive purposes the suspicion system. The suspicion system is meant to monitor the environment for social threats. When the suspicious system is disconnected from the reflective system of our brain, the part that analyses a situation and counterbalances the suspicion system, then delusions can form. Another factor is social interaction. We are not suspicious of furniture but of other people and today there is a huge variety of ways in which we are connected to others. At the core of most delusions is the belief in the malignity of other people. Police, co-workers and family can be the perfect cast for such scenarios. That’s why certain themes recur in delusions.
Is the form of delusion a decisive factor in choosing the adequate narrative?
I think so but as I pointed out, most of them are linked to our social surroundings. That is the common denominator. Take the Napoleon delusion: It is not necessarily a paranoid delusion but more a delusion of grandeur. But it is also social in a way: if you think you are superior, you are less likely to be in danger. You put yourself in a position of power to escape social threats. Today we are surrounded by some people who are famous for no particular reason. That can give the impression that power and fame are easy to acquire.

I hope there won’t be too many cases of Donald Trump copycats.

It would not be surprising if more people with grandiose delusions report that they are Donald Trump. In fact, a colleague of mine told me that he has had some patients of late that believed just that or that he is spying on them. He is the most famous person in the world right now and he is ubiquitous.

“Madness is an experience we are all capable of having”

Delusions are a different perception of reality. Usually that reality is an isolated and unique perception but if a delusional reality spreads and enough people believe it, it can quickly become an alternative reality all together.
That is a valid point. We have criteria to diagnose certain mental illnesses. The problem however is that if a large enough number of people believe something, it is not necessarily recognized as a delusion. Conspiracy theories are good examples. Some of these theories are completely fact-free but we don’t categorize them as delusions but as conspiracy theories because many people hold the same beliefs. The line between the two is very thin.
Myths are another thing that could qualify as delusions but are considered important narratives for our existence.
It’s often said that if you can prove something, it is not a delusional idea. But you can “prove” a lot to back your claims. People can be led to believe a lot, so myths and conspiracy theories are extremely hard to debunk.
Myths not only influence the delusional mind. There are also a lot of myths when it comes to how to cure madness. People used to believe that the “stone of madness” caused insanity or that “black bile” – a humor of medieval physiology believed to be secreted by the kidneys or spleen – caused melancholy and depression.
This is not just true for mental illnesses. There were a lot of medical myths at the time because people didn’t know about viruses or bacteria and so came up with other explanations. Instead doctors used things like leeches to cure patients. Today that would be considered malpractice. When knowledge is absent, people come up with ideas that might seem strange later on. But if many people believed it, it was considered science. Consider the example of vaccinations: A British researcher published an article in the renowned medical journal The Lancet that stated that vaccines could cause or at least increase the risk of autism. People still hold on to that idea well after it has been debunked. Now there is a highly charged controversy surrounding vaccines and his theory is still gaining traction.
Society has a very strange view on mental illnesses, it seems to me. On the one hand, people don’t want to interact with mentally ill people but on the other hand, we cherish the myth of the manic genius or the tormented writer. It could be concluded that we only accept mental illness if it enables you to produce something good from it, if it propels you to another level of creativity.
That’s true. Madness is something we are very afraid of because it is an experience that we are all capable of having. Nobody is safe from psychosis. On some level, possibly unconsciously, we realize that. The right conditions can drive almost every sane brain into madness. If we see a person with mental illness on the street, we find it uncomfortable because we know on some level that it could happen to us. On the other hand, we almost envy some people with mental illness because we believe that their illness has enabled them to do something we are not capable of. Think about somebody like the brilliant mathematician John Nash who suffered from schizophrenia. We tend to think that because of his alternative view of reality, this geniuses realized things that are beyond our imagination. And sometimes that is true, but there is a price you have to pay for that. People with bipolar disorder can show great creativity and productivity during their manic phases but that is by no means guaranteed. In most cases, you pay the price without getting the benefit.
Over the years, you have seen and heard about so many delusions. Is there one in particular that still fascinates you?
Two actually: The Truman Show delusion of course because it was such an important influence on my work. But I also find the Cotard delusion fascinating. It is the nihilistic belief that one is dead but still walking the earth. It is amazing to me because it is such a wild contradiction. Somebody is telling you that he is dead. “But Sir, you are talking to me. How can you be dead?” The belief sticks regardless. New delusional contents might be added to the list but the old forms remain. Still, the list grows.

"Of course I want to turn away from sin"

Ezra Furman is a gender-fluid rock musician and practicing Jew. To him, that’s not a paradox but an empowering identity.

Religion seems to be very central to who you are as an artist and private person. A lot of your lyrics deal with God and you describe yourself as a religious Jew. That is not the first thing that comes to mind when I think about a self-proclaimed gender-fluid rock musician.
I don’t see any contradictions there. Music and religion have always gone hand in hand. Gospel and other church music are the most obvious examples but also Blues was hugely influenced by the musicians’ faith or interest in god. Music has the power to bring people into a state of transcendence in which they experience extreme joy or sorrow. Music gets you to think and act beyond your regular and mundane state of being. Religion has that power too. To me, these are just the two things that I care most about. My purpose in life is connected to both of these things. I think God wants me to use music to improve people’s lives.

“It is tough to be a religious Jew and a rock musician”

Other rock musicians like Little Richard became extremely religious to turn away from what they considered a sinful life. With you, it seems that you embrace both religion and the sins that come with the life of a rock musician.
I wouldn’t put the two in such opposition. It’s not like every rock musician leads a sinful life or that you can’t sin and yet be interested in religion. Especially in blues and early rock, the devil was a very important and widespread symbol of the temptations of everyday life. But I come from a Jewish background and the devil is not that central in Jewish mythology. In Jewish tradition, there is no personified master of evil. We believe that there is only the evil inclination in each and every one of us, and that is something I concern myself a lot with. Of course I want to turn away from sin. That was the impetus for my song One day I will sin no more. But when I think about sinning, it is mostly not related directly to my profession. There is a culture of heavy drinking and casual sex in rock and although that is not necessarily sinful, I am morally weary of these things. It is tough to be a religious Jew and a rock musician, but mostly so because of clashing schedules.
You never played shows on Fridays to observe Shabbat.
That is one example. It’s hard to follow the rituals if you are constantly on the move. That is the biggest problem.
But the mythology and rituals of rock music seem so at odds with how religion wants us to behave.
I don’t necessarily agree. I know what you mean but consider that rock is about disobedience and so is a lot in religion. Yes, religion often wants us to live in a certain way and to obey rules but my belief is that there is only one judge of humankind and so nobody apart from god has any authority over me. The more religion becomes a strange thing rather than the mainstream of society, the more it becomes a revolt against that same mainstream. There are many variations of religion and therefore many ways to practice it. I don’t come from a conservative background; there was never any pressure to live in a certain way.

“Religion is empowering the underdog”

Would it be correct to argue, that you are more interested in god than in religion?
Yes and no. I do practice my religion but I think religion should be for god’s sake and not for its own. The Bible is full of examples of pious people that worship god but act immorally outside of the temple. That is a performance of religion. That is not what I want. If you practice religion truthfully, it is about justice and compassion. That’s another thing that it has in common with rock music: it’s empowering the underdog.
Do you feel like Judaism gives you more liberties than another religion would? There is no high authority like a pope in Judaism, so the religion is a bit more open to different interpretations. 
That’s a bold statement. I partially agree that Judaism is often against hierarchies in the way that it is about empowerment and freedom. At the same time, the religious texts are clearly based on a social hierarchy: men are more important than women for example. Having said that, I think that any religious text is an ongoing process. The Bible is not a definite guide to modern society. These texts need to be repeatedly, even constantly re-interpreted to fit into our real lives. Religion is—can be—progressive. We shouldn’t let fundamentalists convince society of the opposite. That’s why it is so important that people like me don’t walk away from it but embrace it and improve it. I understand that some people just want to reject religion all together but that’s not for me.
Do you feel welcomed when you go to the synagogue or do you feel prejudices because of your appearance?
I go to a very liberal synagogue, so there is not a lot of stigma. I know that’s not true for every church or synagogue. Many Orthodox places wouldn’t want me to attend their services, at least not dressed the way I tend to dress. There is a lot of shaming going on in some places because of how people look or behave. But where I go, embarrassing or shaming fellow believers is a sin, it’s almost as bad as murder.

“The Bible is not a finished guide to life”

You describe your music as a healing process for the downtrodden that do not believe in traditional gender categories. Religion very often propagates and cements the latter. How do your fans react to your religious beliefs?
I see what you mean but at the same time, it’s not like every religious institution is the same or oppressive. There are gay churches that are there to welcome gender-fluid people. Sometimes people criticize me for being religious and being a champion for gender freedom at the same time. They show me religious texts that are homophobic or misogynic and ask: “How can you support this?” A lot of text passages are deeply disturbing but the majority of religious people don’t take them literally. I mean we don’t slaughter lambs every day for instance. Jewish texts are always read with the understanding that it they are meant to be expanded upon and continually adapted, keeping our principles and moral intuitions intact above all else. The Bible is not a finished guide to life, ancient or modern. It was always missing details and intended to be interpreted. The same goes for the U.S. Constitution. It is the foundation of our political system and lays down a set of rules – many of which are incomplete, completely outdated or morally wrong. But we try to keep it updated and make it better.
Is there a religious narrative or part of mythology that is especially sacred to you?
I like King David’s psalms a lot. As a songwriter you have to look up to him. I like Psalm 34 in particular. He wrote it when he was being persecuted by the king at the time and he pretended to be insane so that they would not kill him. He pretended to be crazy to escape a dangerous reality – that’s something I can relate to.
Ezra Furman’s latest release is called “Big Fugitive Life”. He is currently working on a book about Lou Reed’s album “Transformer” for the 33 1/3 book series. Check out his website at

"Punk has been bastardized"


Penelope Spheeris chronicled the wild days of punk and captured a movement that has become a teenage myth. She talked to us about the last revolution in music.

In your acclaimed documentary-trilogy The Decline of Western Civilization, you portray the punk and metal scenes in California. Each movie has a different focus but they are all characterized by an extreme intimacy between the camera and the protagonists. Have you kept in touch with some of the people you portrayed?
Yes, absolutely. I am still in touch with Eugene for example – the young punk from the first Decline. But it’s especially the streets kids from the third part that I consider my punk-rock family.
How so?
There is the professional side of documenting their lives but then there is also something personal. I never just wanted to use them for my movies. I feel a very strong connection to these kids. I even met my boyfriend through the third Decline movie. He was one of the gutter-punks and was homeless for 10 years before I met him.
What was it that drew you to the punk scene in the first place?
I think my upbringing played a big role in it. I grew up in a dysfunctional family – to put it mildly. I grew up in a travelling circus; my father was shot when I was a kid and my mom was a hoarder who married one guy after another. There was a lot of physical and psychological violence and chaos in my childhood and early adulthood. I think that is something I share with many punks. People often ask me, how I managed to feel safe as a woman among all these brute characters that the punk scene attracted. But I felt right at home because it reminded me so much of my own family.
I guess for somebody with your background, the notion of an outcast or freak is something else than to the rest of society.
Exactly. I never considered the punks freaks or different from myself. Punk was always very closely linked to a certain style and you could spot a punk from far. I remember that when the first punks walked the streets of LA, people felt offended – afraid even. In London, that was a bit different. It wasn’t so shocking over there because it was more pervasive. Here, you were a complete outcast.

”Self-promotion is for the Kardashians”

You once called punks the “termites in the woodwork of society” …
They are! The reason I said that is because termites are very powerful, yet barely visible. I think that is also what true punk is about.
That seems at odds with the general notion we have of them as people that dress and behave in an extravagant way to shock and catch people’s attention.
True punks don’t promote themselves too much. They don’t care for that. Of course they might wear a yellow Mohawk but they don’t instrumentalize it. Self-promotion is for the Kardashians.
The punk movement started forty years ago and it has evolved from an underground subculture to a self-marketing opportunity for rebellious teenagers. Is punk dead?
No, I don’t think so. I just think that the label “punk” has been misused by many bands or people. I mean punk has always attracted the chaotic and the troubled souls but it was never really marketed as such. Punk has been bastardized by people that want to be associated with this radical movement but are in no way open to live the life that punks lived in the 1970s.
The myth of punk has destroyed the actual scene?
In a way, yes. At its core, punk is extremely moral, socially vigilant and politically active. These are the values and principles of punk and I don’t think they are being respected today. It pisses me off but there is nothing I can do about it. Punk is the ultimate sign of teenage revolution but it has been commercialized to a degree that it can no longer revolt against the system because it has become part of it. Maybe punk in the 1970s was the last youth culture that actually changed something.
In music or within society?
Both, really. I mean maybe the grunge scene after that but I don’t really care too much for it. Punk was just so unique and completely changed how we think about music and its place in society. Punk was never just about music but tried to go against the mainstream in every way.
In the first Decline, there is a scene in which the editor of the punk-fanzine Slash says that punk will be the last revolution. Did you think that too at the time?
It’s always easier to argue these things in hindsight. In that moment you consider it extremely important and unique but you not always know that this moment is going to have some special significance later on. I think most people in the punk scene thought they were part of something that defines their generation. We were clueless that it would also shape all the following ones.

”The Internet has annihilated the underground”

The title of the trilogy hints at a radical and decisive process or moment in time. How did you come up with it?
People are always curious about it. I was at a party on the rooftop of Slash. At one point Claude Bessy, the magazine’s editor, mentioned a book by Oswald Spengler called The Decline of the West and when I was driving home the title came back to me and just seemed very fitting. Of course it is a bit of a tongue-in-cheek title but there is some truth to it. In the third part, Ron, the singer from the band The Resistance, points out that every culture has its rise and fall. And I think that the Western culture peaked a long time ago.
The irony is that in all three movies we see a subculture that is actually in decline. By the time the first part was released punk had peaked. When the second part about the metal scene was released, grunge was just around the corner.
There is some truth to that, yes. But when I did the movies, it was more than just the music that attracted me. I never thought, “this is the next big thing, I have to document this”. To be honest, I was more interested in the human aspects of punk than in the music. The punk scene was a treasure trove of extreme human behavior.
These characters are missing in today’s music scene, I would argue.
Everything has become homogenized and once you mix everything together, it becomes hard to be authentic. Today’s music scene seems very blunt. The Internet has annihilated the underground. Everybody knows everything. That’s why we miss and long for the days, when there was still authenticity and some edge to a subculture. We cherish this idea or this myth of punk because we lack an equivalent. That’s also why I stopped making music documentaries. What should I document? It has become easier for young people to romanticize punk than to create something new.
Also because subcultures like punk felt very holistic in the sense that they included fashion, art, music and everything else. The Slits-guitarist Viv Albertine even argued that Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren started punk through their clothes and then the music followed.
I spent a lot of time with the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten and he complained a lot about that because he claims that he invented punk. But in true punk spirit, it doesn’t really matter who invented it. We should be happy that somebody did. And yes, it was a very complete subculture because there was some kind of shared codex that dictated how you had to look or how you had to go about things. It was not as chaotic and anarchistic as people might think. We lived by our own set of rules.
Commercial self-marketing was obviously something that was frowned upon. How did you as a director handle this? Did some people from the scene distrust you?
No, not really. I was one of them, so there was no feeling of exploitation. When I did the third part, I walked up to some punk-kids on the street and told them that I was working on a new Decline movie and they replied in anger that I couldn’t do that because Penelope had to do it. When I told them that I am Penelope, they all agreed on the spot to be a part of it. I earned their trust because they knew from the first two movies that I am not doing it to expose or capitalize on something.
For the premiere of the first movie, the LAPD sent 300 motorcycle cops to prevent a riot and the chief begged you to never again publicly show the movie in his city. It is very hard to imagine something like that today.
I never thought about it as a potential for riots. Looking back, I think we involuntarily invented the first flash-mob back then.
Punk is closely linked to trashy aesthetics but there is something extremely beautiful and gracious about the aesthetics of the movies. You almost glamorize the filthiness of the scene. Was that your intention?
It was a deliberate choice, yes. Not only the aesthetics but also the content was not meant to propel the notion that punk is about living in dirty squads and shooting heroin. That is nothing that I want to put on a pedestal. There is sensationalism and shock value in that but I don’t want to show that to young adults. I never wanted to provoke those sorts of feelings.
The movies also find a good balance between tragedy and humor. The protagonists tell their tales of anger and despair but they do it in the most uplifting and humorous way.
They don’t beg for pity and that makes the difference. That makes it more emotional and profound. They rise above self-pity, which is characteristic of punk. Are you a punk Max?
I am definitely not. I used to dress up as punk for the local kids carnival celebration but that’s about it.
I hope you have pictures of that, it sounds adorable! What music did you listen to when you grew up?
Techno for the most part.
I know very little about that scene actually.
Berlin is very notorious for it. When the wall came down, clubs just popped up over here and there was a growing underground subculture of ravers. Today, the city still lives off of that and the time is often romanticized as the last revolution in music – much like punk in the US.
I just remember seeing the band Einstürzende Neubauten from Berlin. It was a spectacular performance. I was on acid. Maybe that had something to do with it.

"We accept a reality that is slowly killing us"

Moby’s newest album proclaims that “These Systems Are Failing”. We spoke with the musician about why it’s worth putting up a fight.

You have named your latest album „These systems are failing”. It sounds very dystopian but actually the lyrics make it seem as if you are almost relieved that everything is crumbling. Is that true?
It’s tricky because the systems that we have created are working, but they are not contributing to our long-term benefit and well-being. It’s not obvious to everybody but once you realize how the systems – economic, political or social – are failing, it’s an ostensibly depressing thought. But our man-made, broken systems need to fail in order for something new to rise. So yes, there is optimism in the current catastrophe. It’s similar to going to the doctor maybe…
In what way?
Say you eat a lot of junk food and your health deteriorates and you have to see a doctor: he will tell you to change your diet to avoid chronic or deadly diseases. It’s a wake-up call and we often need one of those to see what’s going on around us.

”We are sponsoring our own demise.”

There is almost something like a myth of “the broken system” that everybody is well aware of but only few know what it translates to in reality or how to do something about it. You pointed out that as a musician, you can not fix the problems but only hint at them. Does that not evoke a feeling of helplessness?
Not really, because I can do something about it. We all can. There are so many ways to look at a problem. You can look at it from an anthropological or political aspect and it changes accordingly. There are three very easy things we can do to avoid humanity heading for calamity: stop subsidizing industries that destroy us. Animal agriculture, the tobacco industry, the arms industry – they all receive trillions of tax dollars. We are sponsoring our own demise. The other two things we should do is stop using oil and stop eating animals. If we would do these two things, climate change would be reduced by 75% and human health would skyrocket. People think that systems exist in a way that they can not be changed. Have you looked at old globes?
There is one in my living room, I am looking at it as we speak.
I collect old globes and one of the things I like about them is that they represent geopolitical shifts. A globe from 1920 will show a very different order. The status quo is in a way only temporary. It only takes democratic will to change it. I know this might all sound very naïve, but I prefer naïve optimism to depressed resignation. Throughout history people have made really good changes, it’s just hard if we believe the myth that everything is fine.

”We have become confused about what our needs actually are”

Because a reality has been created that distracts us from seeing an alternative, less shiny reality?
Absolutely. Do you know the boiling frog theory?
I hope it’s just a theory and not something somebody tried but the idea is that if you take a frog and throw it in a pot of boiling water, it will do everything to escape the boiling water. But if you put the same frog in a pot of water at room temperature and slowly raise the temperature, the frog will not try to escape and eventually die. We become so accustomed to the false beliefs and myths that everything is fine that we accept a reality that is slowly killing us. The underpinning issue here is the human condition. Every political or economic system exists to meet our supposed needs. But we have become extremely confused as to what our needs actually are. We have alienated us from ourselves.
There is a difference between power and cultural hegemony. If you exert power over somebody, that person will notice. Cultural hegemony however means that a ruling elite can establish their rules as cultural norms and thereby conceal their exercise of power or oppression. It sounds like that is what these systems you refer to are about.
Yes, no doubt. But that tactic means that there is also the possibility to use it for a good cause. Think about racism in the US: Here, like in so many other countries, racism was and still is a huge problem. But the ruling class can introduce legislation that can then shape social norms and beliefs. You can provoke a lot of change in society with some comparatively minor decisions in politics. The thing is that we want the system to change and we want people’s hearts and minds to change. Very often, the latter is the more difficult one but there is a connection between the two. Changing legislation on marriage equality in the US lead many people to reconsider their views. In a perfect world, we could just lean back and wait for people to realize that they are digging their own graves but we are in a dire situation that needs concrete action now. (pauses) I guess this is a bit different than most new album music interviews.

”Music needs substance, not just sounds”

Usually the Anthropocene does not come up that much, no. So on the more musical side…
Oh no, I’m perfectly happy not talking about music. I mean one of the reasons why I gave the record this name is because I really wanted an opportunity to talk about this stuff because it is so important to me. It begs the question: If you are a 50-year old musician and you make your 15th record and you don’t plan to go on tour: why make an album?
I’m listening.
There is the selfish aspect which is that I love recording new material. But there is also the activist aspect. A new album is an opportunity for me to give interviews and write articles.
Why not just write a book on these issues? Why record an album?
At the core of everything is the individual and we are an emotional species. As an activist, I want to reach people emotionally and I think music and visuals are far more effective in that respect than plain text. A few years ago, I put out a very dry academic book called “Gristle” that analyses the consequences of animal agriculture and it sold around 5.000 copies. There is place for academia and textual analysis but that place is not the mainstream. I believe music needs substance and not just sounds.

”Producing hit-singles just seems dull to me”

You recently said that a lot of your fellow middle-aged musicians are making too many compromises to be commercially successful but that you don’t see the point in that.
Again, I wish we would live in a universe where we have the luxury of being selfish. If we had a life expectancy of 500 years and infinite natural resources and everything would be fine, we would be in a position to make art that has no deeper meaning. But everything is not fine. I don’t mean to say that we only need strident didactic art and culture but at the very least it seems almost unethical to me to be like Nero as Rome is burning and we are all just fiddling. To me, the only thing giving my life meaning is trying to figure out this world and make this huge place a little bit better. Nothing excites me more than that. Producing hit-singles and making millions of money just seems very dull to me. You end up feeling like a self-involved pop star that has lost touch with reality – I’ve been there.
That is the big myth of show business: that fame and money will lead to happiness. You recently told the story of how during the height of your success in the early 2000s, you were staying in the most luxurious suite in Barcelona next to the likes of Madonna and all you could think about was killing yourself because you felt miserable. The next day you won an MTV EMA and it was back to business.
It was horrible. This again ties in with what I said earlier: at the core of everything is always the individual. But we individuals often overlook the facts. We don’t look at things based on evidence. We keep doing things without an empirical understanding of what we are doing. I thought to myself: I am a successful musician now, I draw huge crowds and make a lot of money – I should be happy. But I never looked at the evidence that all of this could not make me happy. I desperately tried to avoid looking at the truth. We all do.

”It’s better to fight and fail miserably than not doing anything at all”

The systems are failing because we are failing?
I don’t want to be too hard on us. We have a hereditary component, we evolved in very adverse situations. Think back to who we were thousands of years ago: we were just trying to survive, not starving or getting eaten by a predator. Therefore we still think that if we have enough calories and a place to sleep, everything is ok. Our brain just wants that. We are not conditioned to want a better system as long as the current one works for us. But we need to change our mindset. We still respond to the world like we’re crocodiles. It’s a bit like Don Quichote, I go out fighting in a way that might be completely pointless but I feel it’s better to fight and fail miserably than not doing anything at all.
Moby & The Void Pacific Choir – These Systems are Failing is out on Mute Records.

Histories Hidden in Trash

What we learned walking across Berlin with a garbologist.

For Eva Becker, trash is a research subject. Germany’s first garbologist researches refuse and what it says about the humans creating it. In late summer, we joined her on one of her trash walks: A stroll through Berlin’s Kreuzberg district to document the trash on the streets.
Trash has a tendency to blend into the human environment. Especially in a city as busy and sometimes gritty as Berlin, you may fail to notice it. Walking with Eva, asking questions and slowly turning over the trash we found on our way was an eye-opening experience: Not only is there much more trash than you might think, it’s also scattered in the most unexpected places. We’ll let Eva explain.
Garbology is the study of modern trash. William Rathje of the University of Arizona started using modern archaeological methods to analyse trash in the 1970s. He realized, that the way we litter tells a lot about the way we live. I stumbled upon his research some years ago and was fascinated by it. I did some research and found out that garbology is virtually non-existent in Germany which motivated me to do it.
Trash is nothing new. As a species, we have always left something behind. In the Olduvai Gorge, one of the most important paleoanthropological sites in the world, archeologists have found trash in the form of bones or stone splitt-offs.
The interesting thing about garbage is that it serves as a common denominator. We all litter. Every part of the city is dirty. It’s just the amount and type of garbage that varies. A neighbourhood like Kreuzberg or Neukölln is a real treasure trove for somebody like me: Most people don’t really see the garbage that surrounds them because it is so ubiquitous. We filter it out. It’s only when the amount or type of garbage is unusual that we are reminded of it.
There are two ways people in cities deal with garbage when they are on the go: either they hide it or they present it. Sometimes, you come across a piece of garbage that was not just thrown away but carefully arranged or positioned by somebody. You would assume that people would dispose of their waste in the most discreet manner but some expose their garbage so that the trash collectors can more easily spot and collect it. And then there’s human laziness. That’s probably the prime reason for all the trash we find here. Even if there are enough garbage bins around: the incentive is not strong enough to overcome laziness and actually use them. Hiding waste, on the other hand, is mostly driven by shame or disgust. None of us likes garbage, not even our own.
I have a very high tolerance by now. Of course there are things that disgust me like used syringes or human waste. When I go and talk to school classes here in Berlin, I am always amazed at how the kids react to the garbage I bring with me. They will gladly take up a plastic cup or something that was laying on the street but they jump up and scream if there is an ant or spider crawling around. They have lost all connection to nature. Nature has become something unfamiliar and hence disgusting.
I have seen and documented so much garbage, there is relatively little that still amazes or shocks me. The most surprising thing is probably when you see something valuable being thrown out. I once found this very old and beautiful Indian antique. An acquaintance of mine – an Indologist – later told me that it was quite precious and rare.
It’s very hard to tell where garbage begins and where it ends. One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure. Are dead bodies garbage? When we die, our bodies no longer fulfill any functions, they become more or less worthless and that’s how many people would define waste: a useless object. But our bodies continue to have a function after we die, they become compost and re-enter the biological cycle. I would define garbage as something that is of no use but stays in the environment in some way or another. A plastic bag in the ocean will disintegrate but its parts will stay in the water for a substantial amount of time. Marine biologists call these little shreds of plastic mermaid tears.
William Rathje analysed the garbage at the Fresh Kills Landfill in NYC and what they found out was astounding. One example: they found large quantities of beef. They were able to trace it back to a specific moment in time because in the layer that had all the beef in it, they also found telephone books. They realized that the beef was thrown out during a time of economic recess. Why would people throw out expensive meat during a time of crisis? They bought it in such large quantities because they assumed it would only become more expensive or cease to be available completely. So people started buying beef in bulk but often had no means of storing it appropriately. They were forced to throw out the beef that had turned bad.
Garbage is often a better indicator of human behavior than human communication. In New York, an ad agency was commissioned to find out about the eating habits of the residents of a certain area. The residents were asked to complete a questionnaire about their diet and eating habits and it was established from the answers, that people in that neighborhood were eating extremely healthy. Yet, when a supermarket in the area started offering healthier food options, nobody bought it. It was only by analyzing the garbage of the area that they found out people were not really all that dedicated to a healthy lifestyle. Waste doesn’t lie, humans do.