I’m still thinking through many of the points raised in recent discussions of violence in art on the blog, especially about complicity and the notion of safe spaces (or the refusal thereof) in art. I’ve been wanting to bring in Xiu Xiu, a band that has frequently or constantly explored violence, particularly sexual violence, as well as self-harm, in their work; so their release of a 7” single this week, “Daphny,” was convenient – particularly because the B-side, a Rihanna song, provides another interesting example of art that denies a safe space, actually pulls that safety rug out from under the original song’s feet. So to speak. Given that there is a “safe” version to compare it with, Xiu Xiu’s cover is a pretty obvious example of the kind of deterritorialization that others were talking about in relation to Twin Peaks – and it also works as critique, given the fact of its pairing with an overtly political song, a pairing that seems strategic.
The 7”’s title track, “Daphny,” responds to the experience of a friend of the band who was raped by a police officer while in custody after being arrested for shoplifting. The other track, mentioned above, is a transformative/deformative cover of Rihanna’s “Only Girl (in the World)” – the official video for which Lucas posted a while back.
You can listen to both tracks here.
Like a lot of Xiu Xiu’s music, “Daphny” borrows its creepy dramatics from horror soundtracks – it’s very orchestral and sound effects-y, heartbeat-like poundings leading up to a frightening swell of sound that’s followed by trembling percussive strumming, over which Jamie Stewart quietly
accuses devil devil devil [EDIT: he’s actually chanting “Daphny Daphny Daphny”]. With a strangled voice, he documents And men of power have raped you / for shoplifting an x-box / take a photo of your friend vomiting on your head. The song pushes toward a violent climax, Stewart shrieking with scathing bitterness: Enjoy life / enjoy life / enjoy this life. The song is an accusation, a mourning, a fury, and above all a communication of horror.
Its B-side is Xiu Xiu’s cover of “Only Girl (in the World),” one of Rihanna’s least controversial singles. In Xiu Xiu’s version, Rihanna’s troubling but presumably innocuous expression of her desire to own someone else’s desires and to otherwise feel extremely special is made profoundly uncomfortable. Stewart’s trembly, swollen desire wanders freely between pleasure and danger, or rather refuses a between – here the two states, desire and horror, pleasure and danger, are in unison. The lyrics become menacing, demanding the “you” to: MAKE me feel like I’m only girl in the world / like I’m the only one that you’ll ever love…cause I’m the only one who understands / how to make you feel like a man.
The song is made entirely unsafe in this translation – even more so given its pairing with “Daphny,” as the adjacency makes it difficult to hear these lines without thinking of the sexual assault described in that track. Considering also the few lines from “That’s Not My Name,” the Ting Tings’ screed against catcalling, that are warped and tacked on the front of it, and all the discourse around sexual violence that Rihanna’s name invokes, the song seems to be openly linking itself to ongoing conversations about sexual violence. Meanwhile, pairing this pop-song cover with “Daphny” enlarges the potential audience for “Daphny,” and more widely publicizes the police brutality it’s protesting.
Xiu Xiu’s music has borrowed sound effects from early video game soundtracks as well as horror movies, two genres that deal in violence and death frequently and unapologetically. The game The Path has been talked about quite a lot in the past couple years in discussions of violence against women in art, so I won’t say too much here. You can read this NPR article about it. Mainly I want to address the way it deals with complicity.
I’m still figuring the game out, and my grade in it is a solid C – so, you know, I’m no expert and am probably missing a lot of the nuances and secrets. But the gist is that, when the game begins, you must choose a character from among the six girls hanging out in the opening room. They’re all Little Reds – as in Little Red Riding Hood – but they have different names, different histories, different looks (one’s definitely The Goth, for instance), and appear to be different ages. Having chosen a character, you find yourself on The Path, your character before you with her back to you (that is, you are and are not your character). Words appear on the screen instructing you to “Go to Grandmother’s House – and stay on the path.”
Well of course the first thing you do is get off the path and start exploring. There are glowing flower-type things to collect, and various sites to discover. You quickly find out that these sites are all sites of trauma, each specific to one of the characters. You also find out, from the ominous tones cutting into the soundtrack and the pawprint flickering on the screen, that a wolf is loose in this world, preying on you.
The game puts its player in a state of hyperawareness – it’s a slow exploration of an unknown geography, and as you play, you become aware of your emotional state fluctuating constantly from curiosity to boredom to anticipation to fear. You can’t run – you can only move at the pace the game sets for you – and you finally get so bored (and curious) that you start to seek out your wolf. When you meet him (alternately a lumberjack, a werewolf, various other kinds of creeps, depending on which character you’ve chosen), the screen fades to black. Your character wakes up outside of grandmother’s house in a pile; when she gets up, she’s visibly injured and moving slowly. Whatever the wolf did with/to you, it has resulted in bodily injury. You are complicit – you sought this out, you invited this – or did you? You were just wandering around, after all. This is where the perspectival separation between character and player is crucial – in a sense you’ve become responsible for your character, and ultimately it was you who led her into danger. But then, that danger is required to ‘win': at the end of each character’s trajectory, if you’ve met a wolf, the scorecard declares “success!”
The Path is a tightly controlled, morally ambiguous, and profoundly uneasy game – violence lurks everywhere. What it does best, I think, is, well, three things. First and foremost, it creates an unsettling experience of vulnerability for the player, no matter how far into the world you go. Second, the game refuses to present violence (the implied rape) as punishment for the character/player’s curiosity. The violence presented is fucked-up, but the game (and likely the player) also relishes in the anticipation of it: in the logic of the game, you must stray from the path – if you don’t, you’ll walk along endlessly, safely, and never discover anything. Third, and I think this is crucial, the violence is nearly always implicit – what one is made to focus on is not the violence itself but its pervasiveness, its potentiality, and its effects.
Other good recent writing on sexual violence in art/pop culture: