Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Goldfrapp's Brilliant Debut Album from 2000: "Felt Mountain"

Beauty, Retro-Futurism, Woman as Symptom and the Post-Human Horizon

by J. Albert Barr

"Who do we think we are?" - Goldfrapp: "Pilots"

"It's the stuff that dreams are made of." - Sam Spade in John Huston's "The Maltese Falcon"

"There's no escape. The city's ours. We made it....We fashioned this city on stolen memories. Different eras, different pasts, all rolled into one." - Mr. Hand from the 1998 film "Dark City"

The English electronic pop duo, Goldfrapp, released their eerily gorgeous debut album, Felt Mountain, in September of 2000. I only belatedly purchased my precious copy of it in 2008 after a fortuitous visit to my favorite record store in Toronto, Sonic Boom, on a late summer evening. I casually walked into the store, made my way down an arbitrary aisle and then heard the instantly captivating, otherworldly sounds that opened the album's first, stunning track, "Lovely Head". This was followed by the ambiguous, forlorn whistle from the duo's lead-singer and band's namesake, Alison Goldfrapp. This plaintive, solitary whistle recalls 60s European soundtracks, art-house pictures, and especially Sergio Leone films, which featured the stupendous music of Ennio Morricone. And then Alison's "character" - an apparent artificial twin/clone/replicant - dispassionately sings the first verse: "It starts in my belly/ Then up to my heart/ Into my mouth I can't keep it shut/ Do you recognize the smell/ Is that how you tell us apart". This discernible clone or android or reanimated corpse stays true to her/its claim of being unable to "shut her mouth" when she suddenly wails in such a terrifying, unearthly way, announcing its unnatural and implicitly forbidden presence: science creating artificial being; a being with sentience and consciousness it would seem...and a sense of the horror as well.

The eerie, spooky and spacey sound created to make such an unsettling, yet strangely beautiful, noise could be understandably mistaken for a theremin (popularly used during the 50s in sci-fi movies), but it was, in actual fact, Alison's own voice dramatically processed through a semi-modular monophonic synthesizer which modulated and distorted her voice rendering it virtually unrecognizable and inhuman. For me, it irrepressibly conjures up images of  Maria's gynoid robot-double (variously referred to as "Maria-robot","Maschinenmensch","Futura", "Ultima", "Robotrix"), if we actually heard her voice, from Fritz Lang's classic 1927 futuristic silent film, Metropolis. This associative notion is reinforced by the striking image of a sepia-toned Alison Goldfrapp split in two by a mirror or Rorschach-effect on the album cover of Felt Mountain. Alison's image resembles that of a 1920s era film starlet, if not the German actress Brigitte Helm herself, who played the Maria character and robot-double in Metropolis. It also implies the recent discovery of "genome-splitting/DNA tampering" and human-cloning.   

And, moreover, this sublimely atmospheric, cinematic, pop-culturally allusive and endlessly listenable album, with its postmodern cache, also alludes to a plethora of other eclectic, and profoundly related, sources spanning two centuries: Art Deco, hard-boiled film noir, the 1939 New York World's Fair, the modernist architectural delineations (i.e., sketches) of Hugh Ferris, German expressionism, Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories pulp magazine, spy films and James Bond theme songs, Blade Runner, Dark City, The Thirteenth Floor, The Matrix, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Darwin's evolution theory, Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's 1886 proto-sci-fi novel The Future Eve, Frank Whale's Bride of Frankenstein, Dean Motter's comic book series, retro-futurist Mister X and Terminal City, William Gibson's concept of the "semiotic ghost", Frederic Jameson's 1982 essay "Can We Imagine the Future?", and even H.P. Lovecraft's patented theme of our Faustian/Promethean thirst for "forbidden knowledge", whatever the horrific consequences that may result.   

Despite Felt Mountain's conspicuously modern, electronic sound and aural aesthetic, as well as its seeming emotionally cold distance and bloodless detachedness, I find the album quite affecting, moving and deeply melancholy (there are, indeed, some lush strings and operatic vocal flourishes here and there to counterpoint the underlying darkness and inhumanness). It incites an emotional reaction because of the ironic remoteness and sense of tragedy in its narrative. There's a dark intimation of a post-human presence pervading the album, and more and more throughout our present culture and society; an empty, frightening feeling of abandonment, betrayal and destitution, both physically and emotionally, even when sharing the same space; an increasingly artificial alteration to our collective ontology, our organic being and sense of human communion with one another. Crucially, this also includes the utter draining of the symbolic economy, its meaning and value, within cultural, social and gender relations.    

To further counter the futuristic, mechanical tone of the album, Goldfrapp recorded Felt Mountain in a remote, rural bungalow in Wiltshire county, South West England, hence the very suggestion of remoteness and seclusion in the album's title. Much of the time Alison was alone, and having been affected by this extensive solitude it influenced the lyrics she was writing for the album. Her love of film and memories of her childhood also contributed to the abstract, obsessional quality of the lyrics. Musically, Felt Mountain featured an array of different sounds and influences ranging from 60s pop to German cabaret, Shirley Bassey, John Barry/Morricone/Badalamenti soundtracks, folk, chamber-music, and of course electronica. It achieved only moderate commercial success, which is not surprising in my opinion, as it hardly catered to popular, mainstream tastes, but it did get short-listed for the prestigious Mercury Prize for Best Album in 2001.

Many of the lyrics on Felt Mountain express a sense of being abandoned, betrayed, rejected, jilted and discarded, while obsessively, stubbornly, and out of sheer emotional necessity, clinging to the notion of being loved and desired regardless. There are relatable instances where Alison sings about feeling discarded like a "brown paper bag", being "wired to the world" and "that's how you made me"; "I'm not supposed to feel/ I forget who I am"; "It's just the sound of you and me/Time twitching/Murmurs of our friendly machine"; "Say my name, whisper it/I'm deliciously wired"; "I fool myself to sleep and dream/Nobody's here, no one but me/So cool, you're hardly there/Why can't this be killing you/Frankenstein would want your mind, your lovely head"; "I think I loved you more than me/Are you human or a dud/Are you human or d'you make it up". The album is dominated with this pervasive lyrical theme and trope of self-effacement, negative space and relational distance; supplemented and reinforced by the moody, electronically-baroque and aloof music (composed by both Alison and her partner Will Gregory), despite its icy, jagged-diamond and prismatic beauty. Like the Frankenstein monster (gender reversed) rejected by its maker, and Maria the robot used for manipulative and diabolical purposes as her human counterpart is unjustly imprisoned, and the femme fatale dying or disappearing at the resolution of a hard-boiled detective novel or film noir, Alison's apparently artificial persona is suffering from rejection and abandonment, bereft of her power of being desirable and wanted. Do modern women share the same sentiment asserted in 1985 by postmodern feminist scholar Donna Haraway, that she would "rather be a cyborg than a goddess", if it would only abolish patriarchy in the end?

Is woman simply just a "symptom of man" as controversially suggested by post-Freudian psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901-1981), even in artificial guise? Utilizing Lacan's seemingly sexist theory, contemporary critical theorist and philosopher Slavoj Zizek addresses the equally controversial theory of gender roles of social value in Otto Weininger's 1903 book Sex and Character where he (Weininger) insists that women are inferior to men, and have no predisposition towards "becoming a genius and bettering their spiritual being"; in point of fact they act as a distractive and destructive agent against men's "true desire". Symbolically, "she only exists as a result of the unethical division in man himself and therefore has no existence in her own right" (Tony Myers: "Slavoj Zizek" - 2003). Zizek uses what he terms a "Wagnerian performative" to show the similar functioning of woman's role as espoused by Weininger's claims in Sex and Character. For example, in Wagner's opera The Flying Dutchman, the titular hero eventually fulfills his "symbolic role" by means of woman - assigned to the opera's main female character Senta - acting as a "performative", a necessary vanishing mediator (in Frederic Jameson's' terminology) and symbolic prop, between Man and his ultimate destiny. Senta indeed dies at the end of the opera. However, Zizek brilliantly uncovers an ironic twist that supplants Weininger's and Wagner's male chauvinism by stating that if the so-called "woman as symptom of man" maintains the consistency, the integrity of the subject male, then by virtue of its dissolution will in fact betray that consistency/integrity and the subject will dissolve, be effaced and rendered indistinct. What that means is that man only exists by woman conferring meaning upon him to give him consistency; his existence is "out there" in woman and therefore he depends for his existence on her, hence woman's equal and proportional existence, according to Zizek's insights here.

During the late 19th century the issue of men and women's respective place in society, and the idea of eugenics in general, were being studied and fiercely debated. Charles Darwin focused much of his 1871 book, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex on this very issue and claimed that evolutionary biology determined men's apparent superiority over women. Clearly, this is not the prevailing attitude in contemporary times, at least on the surface; and even the so-called "physical differences" are being considerably challenged by the female sex on the world stage daily. Conversely, however, and despite the major progressions made through the "women's lib" movement of the 60s and 70s, women are still ubiquitously displayed, in their "ideal form", as sexual objects in our advertisement-saturated culture. So there appears to be a deep-seated contradiction of sorts, both contested and endorsed by males and females alike. The woman as predominate, non-subjective sexual object, actually, artificially and virtually, and the woman as emancipated individual with her own mind and worldview are implicated in an ontological and epistemological struggle within the underlying themes of Goldfrapp's Felt Mountain album.

Of course, the other major theme of  Felt Mountain is the postmodern/retro-futurist one. In arguably the album's most beautifully crafted song, "Pilots", Alison sings in the beginning: "Armored cars sail the sky/They're pink at dawn/If I lived forever you/Just wouldn't be so beautiful as the sun/When it shines all over the world", followed by the song's chorus, which asks a very pertinent, but unnervingly simple, existential question: "We're pilots watching stars/The world preoccupied/We're pilots watching stars/Who do we think we are?"; a reflection on "the tomorrow that never was" depicted in early 1930s/40s pulp magazines and other pop-culture media of the day, and displayed in the 1939 New York World's Fair, haunts these lyrics to be sure. In Frederic Jameson's key 1982 essay, "Can We Imagine the Future?", he says: "We can no longer entertain such visions of wonder-working, properly 'science-fictional' futures of technological automation. These visions are themselves now historical and dated - streamlined cities of the future on peeling murals - while our lived experience of our greatest metropolises is one of urban decay and blight. That particular utopian future has in other words turned out to have been merely the future of one moment of what is now our own past".

The pervasive ambiguity and love-hate position of living in our hyper-technological, organically-alienating and increasingly digitally-virtualized, world is suffusing through all, certainly first-world, denizens' constitutions at present, either consciously or not. Are we indeed collectively moving closer to a "post-human age", such as predicted by science-fiction author Vernor Vinge in 1993, leading to what later developed into "the Transhumanist Movement" in the 90s; and will we be ultimately subsumed by the alleged coming Singularity as inventor/futurist Ray Kurzweil hopes will eventually be the case, thus establishing an apparent "cure for death and aging" for its own narcissistic sake?...

"Are you human or a dud/ Are you human or d'you make it up?"


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