Saturday, March 26, 2011

Taking the twit out of twitter

Twitter demands a new style of reading--at least for me as I somewhat belatedly try to learn how to follow the stuttered cascade of references and slap-and-forth responses; it's even harder to follow because I'm still a little starstruck: not only do I get a dribble of insight into my favourite star's minds as they jot down their thoughts, but they actually talk to each other across twitter, so it's like I'm sitting next to Bruce Willis at a restaurant and watching him lean over to the next table to say "Thanks for the concern, my Mom's better now" to Thom Yorke.

As I begin to accustom myself to the churning text of Twitter, I come across a problem far from unique to twitter: what do you do when you're not sure something is a joke? Of course, you get some clearly great comic material on twitter - the flood of one-liners from Colbert, the occasional splash-in-the-face from Steve Martin or Jimmy Carr. But what about those lines that are not . . . quite . . . right.

Bret Easton Ellis asks if Susan Boyle really understands her version of Lou Reed's Perfect Day but then says he guesses it doesn't matter because it's the best cover version of the song he's ever heard. But her version is not better than this; it's not better than this; and face it, it's not better than this, which might actually be shite. Boyle's version sounds like something cut from a mid-1980s Andrew Lloyd Weber play. But here's the rub: if ever there were a song that really doesn't need to be "understood", it's Perfect Day. It's not like Boyle has invested time and energy into Legendary Heart but not cottoned onto the fact that at least one of the lines comes from Shakespeare; she hasn't taken on Halloween Parade, without quite realizing that it is not really an elegy for trick-or-treating or apple-bobbing (unless by trick-or-treating and apple-bobbing one means something we can presume is not what Simon Cowell ever wants to discover is something Susan Boyle is fond of); it's not like Boyle has a version of I Wanna be Black or has tried to cover Metal Machine Music. It's Perfect Day. Everybody understands Perfect Day. So is Ellis saying Susan Boyle has such a cud-chewing, bovine intellect she doesn't understand Perfect Day? Or is he saying that she has done something so subtly astounding and yet so revolutionary to Perfect Day she couldn't possibly understand what she has done? Or is the tweet just a chance to say a really snotty thing to say about Susan Boyle (which is about as hard as throwing darts out of a window and hoping they'll hit the ground)? Or maybe it was a way of saying that she's so uncool she doesn't even realize when she accidentally does something cool, and he wants to admire the latter accidental coolness? I don't know.

You might say: it's just a tweet. You can't take these things seriously. Sure, some people are taking twitter too seriously (Sarah Palin has learned that journalists will report her tweets, so her half-formed thoughts can be immediately channeled into the national discourse) but they're usually the fools for it. So, get over it; give the man a break; tweets aren't lines in a novel, they aren't performed on stage, they're a bit like e-mail messages where you have to hit Send before you can even begin to consider finishing the thought. So, forget about it. Go to bed.

Fine. I can do that.

But . . . but then what do we do when we can't just shrug something off the way we can with the Boyle-Ellis-Reed tweet-incident; what do we do when the marginal ceases to be marginal and, the more you look at it, the marginal strikes you as quite possibly central?

In other words, what are we supposed to do with Kanye West? Now, I'm no fan of Kanye West. Fans are wimpy little bitches who buy records and want signatures; no, I'm a student of Kanye West. I'm at the back of his classroom, scared to raise my hand but watching wide-eyed as he drops mad science from the blackboard up front.

When it comes to Twitter, he's operating on some metatextualist level, constantly re-thinking his own voice, obliquely but insistently critiquing twitter at its essence; all of this is fair enough. But there is also a steady stream of jawdroppingly almost-one-liners, and suddenly the marginal becomes central: is Kanye West parodying the entire world or is he the most damningly earnest product of that world? Not knowing whether or not something is a joke can be of no importance whatsoever, but it can also be a dizzying misunderstanding of, or inability to understand, the world.


Steven said...

Graham_S on Twitter asks: "Isn't Bret Easton Ellis just referring to the supposed heroin subtext of the song?"

Perhaps you already alluded to that, very implicitly. I'm not sure.

My own favourite celebrity Tweeter is William Shatner?

sw said...

Welcome, Steven.

I'm a little bit embarrassed that I had not sought out Shatner's tweets; it's a bit like having a dinner party and forgetting dessert. So, thanks for bringing the apple-and-maple pie.

Regarding Graham_S's tweet: first, what supposed heroin subtext? And aren’t all subtexts “supposed”? But anyway, the lyrics to Perfect Day stand alone as gorgeously poignant and moving without demanding a subtextual analysis. This doesn’t mean Perfect Day doesn't have subtexts; of course it does: and some of the subtexts might be obscure to Susan Boyle or, indeed, me, you, Ellis, or Graham_S (no doubt there are S&M subtexts, queer subtexts, personal subtexts, New York subtexts, and subtexts that those of us born around the time when the song was first sung could simply never fathom). But failing to see a putative subtext in a song that does not really require any subtexts is by no means a fundamental misunderstanding of the song (unless the performer does something weirdly at odds with that subtext: I’d be interested to hear of examples where we can clearly state how a performer misunderstands or fails to understand a song by being tone-deaf to a particularly resonant subtext; I’ll try to think of examples). And surely one must be somewhat cautious about presuming to know which subtexts someone else is or is not familiar with? And all the more true when we are discussing a "supposed heroin subtext" in a Lou Reed song, not only suggesting that the person failing to register the subtext might be a postercow for bovine celebrity unworthiness but that she supposedly knows one fewer fact about Lou Reed than we do (i.e., that there's some connection between Reed and heroin)?

So, no, I’m not convinced that Boyle fails to see a “supposed heroin subtext” in Perfect Day and therefore misunderstands the song. But I could be wrong.

Steven said...

I think it's strange to say a song "doesn't require any subtexts". Like, "This song is nice, I guess, but it would really be improved with a subtext?"

Whether or not you or I think a subtext is "there" or not, it is nonetheless a very famous or notorious "meme" (sorry), that "Perfect Day" is, as it were, addressed to heroin. I think Graham's right to say that that is what BEE must have been getting at. Whether, in getting at that, his overall point was valid is of course a different question. As it happens, I agree with you that it wasn't.

sw said...

Yes, Graham is surely referring to the famous thought-blob that Perfect Day is a lovesong to heroin, and I would agree that it is likely Ellis was referring to that same thought-blob: none of my arguments change.

I would love to see a tweet:
"Does this guy really understand his version of the song? I guess it doesn't matter. It's the best cover of the song I've ever heard."
Linked to:

Daniel F said...

Ellis has set you quite a challenge with his latest tweets, has he not?