Tag: music

„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.

"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 ezrafurman.com.

"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.

Landscape, in C sharp minor

This is how you turn music into color.

“Model required.” Casting call.
In they come, one by one, heels clicking thunder on the gallery’s hardwood floors. The oak is centuries too old for this. The eleven o’clock sun rains in through the glass panes, flooding the space with light, making love midway to the Beethoven streaming through the speakers in the corner. What color is a sonata anyway?
An empty frame, in silver and gold, waits obediently against the white wall.
The first model climbs in, a well behaved hue of blue. She disrobes timidly, looks down. A study in neoclassicism; line over color, a sublimation of the form. The model as an ideal; an aria in monochrome.
I pull out my brush.
“Is yellow warm or cold?”
The model does not talk back. She does not look up. I ask again anyway, and dip the brush in paint. Under my strokes, her pliant fingers, elbows, bare shoulders comply. She evaporates before my eyes, in a muted green haze. I paint a “Still life in aqua.”
But it is not a sonata, so I help her out of the frame. Wafts of green trail behind her as the heels click apologetically out of the room.
The second model hurricanes in, a red so concrete it turns the air opaque. Her angular heels poke holes in the canvas as she climbs into the frame. A study in abstraction; the model as a structure. Order and discipline, uncorrupted design, to which my paintbrush wrecks havoc. A revolution in the frame.
“Is yellow warm or cold?”
The model does not, cannot hear me. The warring colors are so loud, even Beethoven is muted. With shards of neon orange, my brush stokes the flames. I paint a “Portraiture of fragments.”
Still, not a sonata, so I shake my head. She marches out, defiant. The air behind her clears. I hear the floorboards creak again.
What color is a sonata? Is yellow warm or cold?
The third model walks in, and suddenly, the music explodes.
She is the three primaries. The blonde, brunette, and the redhead. The red, yellow, and blue. The model as a possibility, the multiplicity of the self. Vulnerable and provocative, sensuous and naïve. She climbs into the frame, and stares. At me.
I burst into pigments like ripe summer fruit; infinite colors and notes spill out. Soaking the canvas, overflowing the frame, dripping onto the parched oak. Staining the walls, the music, the light. The whole gallery becomes a self-portrait.
There are buckets of paint everywhere, on every surface, in every shade, and I use them all. The sonata is every color I want it to be. Warm and cold and vibrant and bright, it rolls off my tongue, my lips, my chin like syrupy elderflower.
The music rises frantically to a final trill. I paint a “Landscape, in C sharp minor.”


How an ancient council turned lines into borders.

Art is like a border of flowers along the course of civilization.
-Lincoln Steffens

In the beginning, there was a dot. The dot went for a walk, and formed a line. The line evolved, multiplied, diversified. Soon the earth was covered with all types of lines.
Not long after, there came man. Man went for a walk, and formed another man. They too evolved, multiplied, diversified, and soon the earth was filled with all types of men.
Now somewhere along one of these walks, man and line met. This was disconcerting to man, as he had never seen a line. Unsure of what to do with it, or even what it was, he captured and pocketed it, and summoned all the other men of the earth to a grand meeting. Between them all, he hoped, they would define this strange phenomenon and lay the issue to rest.
The historian was the oldest amongst the men, so naturally he went first. He called the line a time line, and tossed it like a fishing net across the others’ memories. He recorded names, ordered events, set precedents, drew parallels. He tied the line into a loop, so it would repeat itself, and tainted it in different shades from different angles and sides.
The merchant glimpsed an opportunity, so he went next. He called the line a trade line, and promptly stretched it over land and sea. He then set off along it, transporting silk and spices, gold and silver, ivory and salt. He carried chessboards in one direction, religious texts the other. Apples West, chocolates East. Exchanged knowledge for sugar, wine for rice, art for oil and coal.
The scientists were less hasty. They needed structure; a definition based on data, methodology. The mathematician placed the line on a graph, a plane, a chart. He then presented it to the others, who recorded precisely what they saw. The astronomer observed a spectral line. The geologist, a fault line. The chemist, a bond line. The physicist, a field line. None could prove the others false; they would need more experiments, more tests, more time.
The artists were experimental too, but of a more spontaneous kind. They got creative with the line, to everyone’s delight. They made it thick, they made it thin. Long, short, straight, and curved. The Romantic’s line was delicate and fine. The Realist’s, accurate and neat. The Impressionist blurred it in a colorful haze, from which the Cubist made it reappear in a jagged, frenzied daze.
The writer unfolded a story line, to the tune of the pianist’s melody line. The comedian delivered a punch line, which the athletes then took for a finish line. Some ran, some swam across it. Jumped over, crawled under it. Swung high above the ground from it, walked deft and precariously along it.
This meeting had turned into great, loud, fun. All the men were clapping and cheering. All the men but one.
The politician awoke grumpy from his nap and frowned as he looked around. The meeting had clearly gotten out of hand. It was time to take it into his own.
He cleared his throat and silence fell as he took the floor. He looked down at the offending line that had cost him his sleep, then around to address his fellow men.
“This line is a dividing one that has spurred enough controversy and debate. As guarantor of mankind’s safety, and to preserve the peace, I hereby declare it a border line and banish it to the edge of the map.”
His advisors nodded in approval. The council agreed. And man immediately set to work, enforcing the party line. The cartographers drew, the engineers designed, the workers built. The following morning, when man awoke, the headlines read:

Dividing Line Now Border Line.

No one really knows just how the devolution of mankind began, but it happened somewhere, sometime along those lines. Man’s own strategy turned on him; falsely accused and put to wrong use, all the lines united and became border lines. Those within them feared those without them, and suddenly everyone was obsessed with crossing them.
Once demarcation turned to separation, nothing, it seemed, could stop the lines gone rogue. History could recall no precedent. Trade could find no route. Science ran out of experiments, and art ran dry. For once, even the politician could find nothing to say. The border lines had turned to enemy lines, front lines, dead lines.
Then something remarkable happened. It took the whole world by surprise. One sunny day, one little child and his brand new box of crayons happened to pass a border line. He stopped to examine it, looked around cheekily, pulled all his crayons out of the box… and colored all over it.

A Friend of the Devil

The story of a musical genius, made at a crossroads one night.

Black road long and I drove and drove
I came upon a crossroad
The night was hot and black
I see Robert Johnson
With a ten dollar guitar strapped to his back
Lookin’ for a tune

Well here comes Lucifer
With his canon law
And a hundred black babies runnin’ from his genocidal jaw
He got the real killer groove
Robert Johnson and the devil man
Don’t know who’s gonna rip off who.

Nick Cave – Higgs Boson Blues
The story of Robert Johnson is vague. It is built on rumors, half-truths, fading memories and flat-out lies. It is the story of a black musician in white-supremacist America. It is the story of Delta Blues. It is a story fueled with envy, hatred, passion, genius and awe. But above all, it is a story of inner and outer demons.
Born 1911 in Hazelhurst, Mississippi to relatively prosperous parents, Robert Johnson was a calm and shy young boy, noted for playing the harmonica and the jaw harp, just like so many other African Americans of the time. The boy had a keen interest in music and the strong determination to one day become more than that. In the American South, there were only so many things that a young black adult was able to do and being a musician was one of them. After Johnson married his first wife, Virginia Travis, at the age of 18 – she was 16 at the time – he became more and more determined to turn his passion for music into their means of livelihood. His young wife and her parents were shocked that an educated black man like Johnson would not use his good fortune and favorable position to strive for a reputable job. When Virginia died during childbirth, shortly after their wedding, relatives of the young girl interpreted her death as a divine punishment for Johnson’s decision to choose his music career over a settled life as family father and for singing non-religious songs. Doing so amounted to selling his soul to the devil, they thought. But to young Robert, the loss meant that he only had one love left in his life: music.
In 1930, legendary blues guitarist Son House came to the Mississippi delta. Johnson went to see him perform and was taken aback by the raw energy and the power of Son’s music. Son played music that had more to it than rhythm: he played songs that expressed the harsh living conditions and the daily struggles the suppressed black community faced in this part of the United States. Johnson realized, that he could not express these emotions with the harp or the harmonica, but that the guitar was the musical instrument most apt to set his feelings to a tune. Not long after, Johnson began traveling around his hometown Robinsonville with a cheap guitar strapped to his back. But unfortunately, as Son House recalled in interviews about the young Johnson much later, he did not appear to be very talented on the 6-string instrument and would literally scare off audiences. “They would come out and say ‘Why don’t y’all go in there and get that guitar from that boy?’”, Son remembers.

A genius in the making

Making barely enough money to get by, Johnson left the scene around Robinsonville and relocated to the nearby town of Hazelhurst where he – a nobody – played in taverns, on street corners and during Saturday night dances. During one of these performances, he became acquainted with Isaiah “Ike” Zinnerman, a well-renowned blues guitarist who would change Johnson’s life.
As with most of Johnson’s life story, the details surrounding their first encounter and their following meetings are vague at best. Most accounts were passed on over generations, from mouth to mouth, but were never properly documented or verified. What we know today, is that Zinnerman was famous not only for his guitar skills but also the way he acquired them. Rumor had it, that Zinnerman learned to play the guitar supernaturally, by visiting local cemeteries at night and strumming tunes on top of graveyards. Most chroniclers of Johnson’s life are positive, that Zinnerman was Johnson’s tutor and helped him to perfect his playing. How he did that, remains a topic of much speculation and the source of the myth that became almost synonymous with Robert Johnson himself: his deal with the devil.
There are many accounts of a dark night – some place it in a hot summer, others in a stormy winter – in which Robert Johnson went to a crossroads, the precise location of which is still widely debated, to meet a tall, dark man who would wait for him at midnight to tune his guitar and thereby bestow upon him superhuman guitar skills in return for his soul. The first one of these accounts goes back to Tommy Johnson, potentially a distant cousin of Robert and a Delta blues musician himself. Apparently Zinnerman also made a pact with the devil and told an ambitious Robert Johnson that this was the only way he could master the instrument like his role models Son House and Willie Brown did. Other accounts claim that Johnson heard of the deal after one of his gigs. Most of the accounts, however, lack precision or conflict with others. The only indisputable thing is that something happened in Hazelhurst. That when Robert Johnson returned to his hometown Robinsonville, shortly after having left as an embarrassingly untalented guitarist, he returned as the musician that would later become the unrivaled king of delta blues.
Johnson’s guitar playing had improved so drastically over such a short time that many of his contemporaries thought black magic or some other supernatural power was at work. To musicians like Son House, it seemed abnormal that the guy they had laughed about only two years ago would now outplay them. Johnson’s hard-drinking and womanizing lifestyle, paired with his dirty-sounding and energetic music, further boosted his reputation as a musical daredevil. His play was too perfect, too different, to be man-made. Even decades later, musicians listening to his recordings would marvel in awe at his skills. Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards famously asked “Who’s the second guy playing?” when he first listened to the king of delta blues, disbelieving that one man could play both chords and riffs like Johnson did. At the time, the idea, that pure ambition and discipline were Johnson’s formula for success, seemed preposterous. There had to be more.

A devilish pact

The history books are filled with stories of people making deals with the devil and trading in their soul for power, money or success. Goethe’s Faust is likely the most prominent example but by no means the only one. It was rumored that the mother of the Italian violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini sold her son’s soul to the devil in order for her son to become the world’s greatest violin player. Throughout Europe, there are many bridges that became known as “devil bridges” because people during the Middle Ages considered such constructions to be beyond human capabilities. It seems that in most cases when devil’s help has been added to a story, it was for human disbelief in human talent or achievement. The things that are too perfect, too flawless to be true, that almost exceed our imagination, are explained by the intervention of a product of our imagination: the dark lord. Religious beliefs tell us, that things have a god-given order. Religion tells us what is possible and what is not. Often, pious, bible-loving people do believe in the miracles of scripture, but consider man-made miracles simply implausible.
Especially in music, religious beliefs have a tradition of discrediting or accusing everything that does not appear to be in line with the imagined harmony of the universe. For example: during the Middle Ages, the tritone between C and F sharp became known as “diabolus in musica” (the devil in music). This tritone – a musical interval composed of three adjacent whole tones, sounded dissonant and was believed to summon the devil if played out loud. Centuries later, the tritone would become known as “the blue note” – a fundamental part of the “devilish” Jazz and Bebop of the 1940s.
In the case of Robert Johnson, as with Paganini, it’s fair to say that jealousy and malevolence lie at the heart of the devil legend. It was easier to believe that Johnson had acquired his skills by cheating rather than through talent. Johnson would travel the Mississippi delta, that wedge of land bordered by the waters of the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers, and a stronghold of Southern white supremacy, for the rest of his career as an itinerant musician, recording his landmark album King of the Delta Blues Singers that would secure him his status as musical genius decades later, when guitarists in the 1960s re-discovered his work and let themselves be influenced by it.
On August 16th 1938, aged just 27, Johnson died in Greenwood, Mississippi. The exact circumstances leading to his death remain as mysterious as the man himself. Some accounts have it, that he was stabbed by a jealous husband of a white woman that Johnson had been flirting with. Another version of the events has it that the husband poisoned him. Typical for his times, Johnson was buried in a homemade coffin provided by the county and laid to rest in an unknown grave. What remains is his music, which inspired so many later generations of musicians, and the myth of a man willing to do everything to achieve his life goals.
In Me and the Devil Blues, one of Johnson’s most famous songs, he sings: “Me and the Devil was walking side by side”. Maybe they still are – somewhere at a crossroads, somewhere in the Mississippi Delta.