Look At That Girl
In 2011 I went to a HTRK show because I wanted to fuck someone who worked for the venue. 2011 was the year I was the most terrible to the most people. I occupied the dance floor with too few others, standing in black pools of light. Onstage, a boy/girl and a crescent of sinister devices proceeded to reverse-engineer a bat out of hell. The music—populated and desolate, noisy and naked—was ten feet of razorwire that marked everyone with hesitation. I stayed til load-out, barely moving. It occurred to me then, and many usages verify, that HTRK is a band you can love even—especially—if you really do hate rock.
HTRK got off to a weird start. They made permutational sketches of noise, bright agitpop bent sinister. Like most bands that hold the visual attention, they had an astringent look: boy/girl/Asian which became, tragically, girl/Asian. Jonnine Standish and Nigel Yang, the surviving members of the initial trio, pose in photography for Psychic 9-5 Club, their latest record, wearing fashion-damaged beachwear while a Taos river divides the frame. Yang, in profile, cleans his glasses with the tail of his open shirt. Standish wears a trucker hat and shorts that appear scissored out of a Japanese flag the colors of which were allowed to suicidally run. The orienting red sun of the design is vaguely vaginal.
As sophisticated as HTRK’s sound is now, nothing prepares you for how slinkily unfinished the songs still seem, like nasty threnodies of a love divided. Imagine a single lightbulb swinging–at first that’s the story. But what’s this empty chair in the corner? Oh my god what’s that sound?? Think of the ending of UNDER THE SKIN, how the forest first swallows Scarlett Johansson then spits her out, and the horrible reduction of beauty to ashes that follows. Some of the songs contain astute changes in dimension and perspective that are like similar jags in Hitchcock or Polanski films, observing an object until the object starts to observe back. Extraordinarily alive, the arrangements are more often than not sexy skeletons.
HTRK’s most searched song on Spotify is called “Ha” and was used memorably, if briefly, in the Xan Cassavetes vampire movie KISS OF THE DAMNED (2012). Its lyric ‘I’ll have you home by nine/or whatever’ is probably the band’s most microcosmic. A promise to observe curfew? This date must be illegal. Or is the narrator, in this case Standish, just being a cheeky cunt? The bass roars and Standish enunciates that onomatopoeia for the entirety of the chorus.
The third track on Psychic 9-5 Club is lyricless except for a reel of Standish and Yang laughing. It’s observed on the enclosed lyric sheet in the following way: [LAUGHTER]. The ability to infiltrate romantic angst with comedy is a program against abuse; it began with bullies. My uncle, the closest thing I had to a big brother, told me the neighborhood kid who taunted me for being frail would leave me alone the first time I laughed out loud at him. Playgrounds and their outskirts are where we first learn that laughter, not love, conquers all. My uncle is gay, incidentally.
Look At Her
The first line of side two of Psychic 9-5 Club is ‘I’m in love with myself.’ So jocose! Vanity and body image were identified as typical HTRK tells by Resident Advisor in their rave for Psychic 9-5 Club, with titles like “Skinny” and “Work That Body,” from Work (work work), the band’s last record, and “The Body You Deserve” from the new one. In the flagrantly stylish video for “Synthetik”, a pair of androgynes make out while wearing Rescue Annie masks. In the flagrantly stylish video for “Bendin,” Standish and Yang adopt a sort of hypnagogic limp thru various LA venues, hydrating heavily. A body-conscious element is highly present, but nothing about the music itself projects models backstage waiting to be beautiful, or even models purging themselves of all cliche. As stipulated by one lyric, ‘Skinny skinny girls hook up with skinny skinny boys.’ But I don’t trust HTRK’s relationship to idealized physicality as far as I cld throw it. It’s more Carverian—not the icon of realism, the serial mutilator from Nip/tuck. If beauty is a curse on the world, HTRK has found a sort of brutal way around it. You can self-idolize as long as you know that you are crumbling, inside and/or out. You can have the body of your dreams, but one day you’re going to wake up with a truly exquisite corpse.
HTRK’s original bassist, Sean Stewart, committed suicide in 2010. Work (work work) came out the next year andis a fallout record of sorts, adrift in morbid incense. Psychic 9-5 Club has lighter tones, but is still funerary: it still prepares a body for viewing. The band posed naked during the Stewart period. The image is desultory and desexualized, yet somehow not arty. It has a Snapchat quality; they themselves look like children waiting to be bruised.
The single “Blue Sunshine,” from Psychic 9-5 Club, includes, first as a makeshift bridge and then as a kind of improper outlay, the words QUEER QUEER QUEER QUEER QUEER QUEER QUEER QUEER QUEER QUEER QUEER QUEER. Standish and Yang, both of whom are heavily into things like tarot reading and body scanning, are heavily not into overdetermined or plotty things like gender, except as a floor to sweep entirely clear. Much like the artist Tauba Auerbach plays with flatnesses, bad directions, and depth perception, HTRK plays with the illegibility of love mixed with confusion. ‘He on she on me’, from the track “Love Triangle,” is a silly little line that isn’t about sex with a third party, at all. It’s about the pull of directions. ‘Girls move to the back, boys move to the front’, from “Bendin,” is anti-apartheid, gender-wise. Standish goes so far as to stipulate that she’s ‘fallen in love with a new gender’ on “The Body You Deserve,” which closes Psychic 9-5 Club.
Consider the following trilogy of looks from Nostalgia, the band’s 2007 debut: “Look What’s Been Done”, “Look At Her,” “Look At That Girl.” A true narcissist is not the one staring forever at her own reflection. A true narcissist stares at others staring at her reflection. She encourages looking because she can imagine no mirror greater than another, lesser human face. Her beauty is reified in the number of times she’s checked out per day. As we know from Butler, Sontag, or Britney Spears, this is beauty as performance. The audience must retain the ability, on occasion, to see right through it.
‘I’m in love with myself’ is from a song called “Wet Dream.” I did not fuck that girl at the show. Ultimately masturbation is an act of sacrifice.
Look What’s Been Done
Psychic 9-5 Club, nearly as much as its predecessor Work (work work), is a quietly-maintained concept record about what Standish qualified, in an interview with Dazed Digital, as “energy that can exist between the hours of nine to five, which for a lot of people are wasted hours, or hours of just going through the motions.” Workplace tragedies are a popular genre everywhere except television; work is the equator between the two life-poles of sex and death, or at least the scale that modulates the two. Office as odalisque comes to mind; nothing is as fetishized by Americans as work done every day for a lifetime, even as the identities of work have been shellacked beyond recognition. The song “Love Is Distraction” from Psychic 9-5 Club skims the dark surface of one obsession with the light wingtip of another: amid more allusions to art-directed body parts [‘elbows flash like diamonds’; ‘your angles cut a highway’] Standish suggests that making love not work is a tagline worth warring for. When she sings ‘Give it a fraction of your time’ you know which one she’s talking about. Creative tunnels can be dug anywhere but for most people, even those from the so-called creative classes, most of the aboveground light is office-issue halogen.
The band released an influences list for Work (work work) that included the fiction of Dennis Cooper; films like DEMONLOVER and IN A YEAR WITH 13 MOONS; esoteric nonfic with titles like Cold World: The Aesthetics of Dejection and the Politics of Militant Dysphoria; and Chris Kraus’ Aliens and Anorexia. Writing abt the latter in Bookforum, the writer Palle Yourgrau said that ‘Perhaps the body is, after all, our spaceship, the only vehicle we have for transcendence’. Kraus herself wrote, ‘When you don’t know what to do you look for signs.’ Still: how do you stop for directions if you’re in a spaceship? Half your life is slow motion in a vehicle built for speed, and the other half it’s the other way around.
Another title on the Work (work work) curricula is Theodore Dalrymple’s Romancing Opiates: Pharmalogical Lies and the Addiction Bureacracy, a book which is pretty much institutionalized Just Say No with an acidic coat of paint. It’s hard to say if HTRK either RTs or endorses such a hard-line position, but let’s face it—this is drug music in the cinematic, saturated sense Dalrymple credits with driving so-called addiction mentality. Listening to Chinatown Style, track 7 from Psychic 9-5 Club, feels like all your nerves ending at once. Fugitive habits are ameliorated and you know exactly who you are for a change. The delay and reverb the band is notorious for blend to a shimmer while Standish’s mumbly vocal circles with raven regularity, conjugating mood swings. To songs this hyperaesthetic you don’t turn on. You hook up: blood fills the chamber and the curtain either rises or falls.