A consideration of “Vampires with Dreaming Kids” and “The Girlfriend Experience”
These days, my life is lived on the hypermedia broadband, incessantly, obsessively. And occasionally, I have some remarkable experiences there. I'd like to tell you about two of them which chimed together.
Recently I discovered a quite extraordinary band just starting to run the Brooklyn club circuit. Their name is Twin Sister, made up of four guys and a girl, all friends from Long Island, between the ages of 20 and 26. They've just released an EP called “Vampires with Dreaming Kids,” and to my mind it's one of the most lushly considered “concept albums” I've heard in a long time: a great ascending arc of falling deeply in love, and that is a thing that is ever so difficult to talk about even when talking about music: to say so is a great risk: one is either wise, or deeply foolish. (And fools rush in, etcetera etcetera.)
I'd like to consider this EP in conjunction with Steven Soderbergh's “The Girlfriend Experience,” which I encountered directly after. I found myself watching “The Girlfriend Experience,” and toggling between that and “Vampires with Dreaming Kids” back and forth, so taken was I with the emotional and intellectual effect this had – for “Vampires with Dreaming Kids” and “The Girlfriend Experience” are diametrically opposed to one another in every respect but one: they are both true.
There are four tracks on Twin Sister's EP. The first, “Dry Hump,” begins with late-night drunken guitars: one, acoustic, a melancholy strum; another, electric, an errant, plaintive wail. A whisper of a girl's voice, supine, playful, wasted –
If you're all alone
bring over your bone s
and payyyyy me
anywhere you want to
It's a line that folds under the lip of pornography, but doesn't slip in; that feels up the emotion of blasé whorishness but doesn't give in, precisely (because of the title) it's a wet hallucinatory invitation to halfway. As the music shimmers like a dirty Spacemen 3, the phrase repeats – first sounding like Billie Holiday on a broken record, then Björk at both her most coquettish and most playful. Then a big fat guitar bass note flanges upward, and the track becomes at once a striptease and a torch song, heavy with sleaze and sweet dream.
And then the morning, with red-haired lover, all things diamond and aflame in “Ginger” – in the first instant of wakefulness crashing down like My Bloody Valentine's “Loveless,” but then opening up into castles of cathedrals and bell-chimes and stained-glass cascades, riding on a river of bass in a month of The Sundays. Epic as The Arcade Fire without the bathos, intimate as Sinead o'Connor when breathless, re-writing The Pixies' “Gigantic, big big love” with a slow, confident heartbeat and arabesques of the quotidian made magical, “maybe little birds begin to grow.”
But Twin Sister knows – it knows the castled cathedrals raft upon the bass river of Time, it knows that the epic must admit of the quotidian, that the myth must be made human for it to survive. And so “Ginger” closes like a breaking-down phonograph gearbox, its grand gates dissolving into the '70s prairie of “Nectarine.” It's an acoustic, country-inflected romantic ballad that casts a male voice into Penelope's song:
When you're sailing 'round the evening
and when you come back home
when you come back home
I'll won't ever let go I haven't before
These lyrics risk the gauzy, flaccid cheesiness of '70s soft-rock, but the risk pays off with a gallopity rhythm and a slide geetah, recasting a stasis of ebb-and-flow in overnight stays into a story of pioneers, male and female voices pairing in a duet
We can ride back home
which prompts the inevitable question: what, where is home?
“I. want. a. haaaus,” insinuates lead singer Andrea Estella on the finale, each word insistent on the beat. It makes one a little nervous. After all, there's a brief Slavic moue on “want,” as if she's channeling Ivana Trump for an instant. But just like the implied “money-shot” of “Dry Hump,” anxiety over filthy lucre dissolves into the intimate and mystical –
I want a house
Made of old woo(d)…
You can paint it any color
Just as long as I can be with you
What's particularly magical about “I Want a House” is that its slowdance down-beat and whukka-whukka guitar rub up against the sickeningly sweet clichés of commercial Top 40 R&B ballads, and steal the honesty from their overprocessed heartstrings. Imperceptibly, “I Want A House” shifts from downbeat to upbeat, from acquisitiveness to ownership, and into a beautiful, melodic slow house groove.
We see now why Twin Sister has titled this EP “Vampires with Dreaming Kids.” Notwithstanding the current lurrrve for all things vampiric, it seems clear to me that Twin Sister has taken a collection of genres that exude a popular and therefore vampiric seduction – porn, goth, country, r&b – and brought them into the home of dreaming kids, i.e. lovers. In which they are allowed to twist and change, playfully, with impish, seductive danger, as Twin Sister morphs itself into a safe and generous sonic home.
The few critics who have so far responded to Twin Sister's music have labelled it “Shoegaze.” Sure, there's the slow-beat, electronic dush paired with chromatic guitars, but this is not the shuffle-sway of early-20s mumblecore shyness. You're missing the point if you're looking at your shoes. This is music that implores you to look boldly, directly, communicating what you want, because this is music that fulfills trust with generosity, a generosity extended by Twin Sister to make the entire EP free for download.
Right about the same time I encountered Twin Sister, this past month, I checked out Steven Soderbergh's experimental film “The Girlfriend Experience,” shot amid the financial crisis of 2008 and released in May 2009 to reviews as mixed and coolly considered as the film itself. Back then, A.O. Scott in The New York Times, in a highly nuanced critique, thought some of its methods “tryingly obvious and irritatingly oblique,” but suspected that
'The Girlfriend Experience' may look different a few years from now. When the turmoil of the last 12 months has receded and the 10th-anniversary deluxe collectors edition comes around, this strange, numb cinematic experience may seem fresh, shocking and poignant rather than merely and depressingly true.
As the unrelenting disclosures about the financial crisis have denuded our emperors, and turned eyes to the pornographic details of our exposure to debt, A.O. Scott's timeframe has collapsed – that time is now. And with “The Girlfriend Experience”'s themes of vampirism, commerce and intimacy tangled in a Gordian knot of modernity, the film provides an unsettling – and insistently curious – counterpoint to Twin Sister's music.
As you may recall from the marketing hype, the film stars “real-life” porn star Sasha Grey, 21 years old and credited in at least 161 triple-Xers. She's been called “the smartest girl in the business” she constructed her stage name from The Portrait of Dorian Gray, and she considers her work performance art. In Soderbergh's film, Grey plays the role of Chelsea, an upper-echelon escort negotiating her lifelovebusiness in Manhattan, catering (mainly) to young professionals barely containing their panic over Wall Street's fall.
Now, I love brilliant women, but Sasha Grey's porn doesn't do much for me; I've seen a few scenes, on the tamer end of her spectrum (for research purposes naturally). As is the case for most pro smut streaming out of the Valley, it looks like she's acting, which is to say it's not very good acting, since porn generally works best the closer it gets to a cinema verité of pleasure. She's somewhat cold, often blasé, often dominant, sometimes providing a study of the fabricated nature of the medium through those non-moods.
In other words, utterly perfect for Soderbergh's movie.
Because she's trying to escape the frame.
“GFE,” runs the jargon in the CraigsList adult section, “the girlfriend experience,” which is a clever marketing euphemization of the term “escort,” which means prostitution dressed up to imagine itself differently. Chelsea (Grey), as we learn through the narrative, is yet still a romantic and refuses to take the euphemized, marketized term “GFE” at its pornographic value. Throughout the film, she's searching for the perfect client, the one with whom she'll love her job. It sounds like an absurdity on its face, but when are any of us not on that quest? What looks to be “a perfect match” is a mirage (a waffling screenwriter, in a loop-within-a-loop); the remainder of the men dolorously detail their financial anxieties while dispensing investment tips. Such is the contemporary girlfriend experience, a gender theorist might conclude.
The film very deftly tangles the definition of “success,” between what you love to do and what makes money, and then severs them neatly. Call girls need marketing too, but paying someone is expensive and prostituting your own prostitution is nauseating. Chelsea turns a trick as an audition to a sex junket in Dubai, then gets abused in a written review, “clammy hands” being the wrist-slap of the insult onslaught. Even the reporter she talks to angles questions toward exploiting her character. This is life, and through most of it Chelsea rides with barely-edged directness and knowingness.
In the final scene, Chelsea is called in to a Hasidic diamond merchant. He escorts her into the back room, and lectures her on the importance of voting for McCain while they both strip to their underwear. In most of the film, as in most of her porn, “grey” the color is as much a dominant presence as Grey the actor. Here, the room is warm; Sasha Grey has never looked more beautiful and inviting. She clasps him in a very chaste embrace. He climaxes. And for the first time in the entire movie, you sense an actual intimacy between two people, a “couple” trying to transgress their identities but unable to penetrate beyond them.
“If you're going through hell,” Winston Churchill said during the Blitz, “keep going.” There's a reason why, in Soderbergh's film, the only professional actor is Grey herself. It's “a hall of mirrors,” as Village Voice critic J. Hoberman wrote, reflecting the exploitative tension between professional and personal goals in not only Sasha Grey the actor and Steven Soderbergh the director (whose career swerves between blockbuster and art-house) but you, and me, and everyone, in these Great Recession years.
And by peering closely at the telescoping reflections of mirrored surfaces, we do yet see beyond surfaces – we are intimate with the tanglings of our economy below the professional veneer. And begin the cycle with a new song.
“If you're all alone…”
What I wouldn't give to see Sasha Grey digging a Twin Sister show.