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“Exploring a Couple of Disarming Music Videos: Cat Power”

For this post, I’m examining three Cat Power music videos: “Cross Bones Style” (1998), “He War” (2003) [1] and “Lived in Bars” (2006).
I’m not an expert on music videos. Well that’s ok: because no one is, other than maybe Radiohead and the Smashing Pumpkins, two musical acts of preternatural, yowling vocal chops which largely stand apart from all human realms of “normalcy.” Pearl Jam made a couple solid ones (“Jeremy”; “Alive”), then tossed ’em to the drain for seven years until “Do the Evolution.” Nirvana’s best video, and song, “Heart-Shaped Box,” was great but then the tragedy happened not long after, so it’s like we’re still at large as to what their effect is. Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” will always stand as a classic, I suppose, but it’s also very cheesy. It gets by on a great song, in my opinion, and then some retrograde to jazz-era themes, so credit the band with that. This was a wise move on the Pumpkins’ part, as was delineating out the epic narrative for “1979,” a more nondescript patch of music.
This sense of balance, then, would seem to fit into the whole debate about whether to do a video or not, in the first place. Have you ever seen a video for “Stairway to Heaven”? How would you even do that? No one has footage of heaven. Some songs are too good. It’s possible that with shambolic outings such as “In Bloom,” Nirvana sought to comment on the absurdity of the readymade format, four minute rock songs with soft verses and loud choruses. One listen to the first part of What Would the Community Think, though, Cat Power’s initial full-length album from 1996, and it’s apparent that she (and the community itself too, for that matter), saw the very act of what she was doing — intimate guitar/country songs with a sexy aesthetic/voice/persona — as askance in some way in and of itself.
Arguably, her first real musical statement whatever came two years later, with “Cross Bones Style.” I’ve heard this song referenced by the rapper K-os on his track “Dirty Water” and given the overall lyrical manifold it’s easy to see why it would have made an impression on him. In fact, I think I’ll come back to “Cross Bones Style”: I’ll discuss it not until after the other ones. There are artistic nuances, subtleties and mannerisms embedded in that song or album which can more than serve to define Chan Marshall’s, or Cat Power’s, entire career.
I remember seeing “He War” cited as the flagship song off of You Are Free sort of notarized to an obnoxious extent, although I can’t seem to find the original Pitchfork review by Rob Mitchum which I believe is where I first saw it. I happen to agree: “He War” is in no way the best song on You Are Free [2], but again, as I’ve stated, not necessarily does this make it least conducive to visual rendering [3]. The basic motifs of the “He War” video, obviously, just like the song, encapsulate failed romance, more or less — the one specific repetition regarding which is the illustration of a man walking AWAY from Cat Power, a man (the same man in each scene, I believe), whose face is thereby obscured. The artist seems to be antagonizing the primal instinct to fight in order to achieve heterosexual romance, obviously, but the minor semantic abjuration I’d like to make here is that, well, she’s stupid: she should want guys to fight to win her over. That’s what life is: we’re all mammals, deep down, and sometimes as I guess with her these musicians just simply weren’t made to love on a small scale, the way dating typically calls for. They were destined to always glimpse the big picture, to imbibe life affectively as it’s experienced by a consummate cross-section of humanity, including even the dregs like Marshall sings about in “Names,” and like even she might have acted herself, as is alluded to in our next masterpiece, “Lived in Bars.” Before I get to this piece, though, I’d just like to administer a partial pardon of Marshall for her caustic dismissal of human instinct by way of a couple precedents: Bjork’s lyrics “I’m so bored with cowards / Who say they want what they can’t handle” in “5 Years,” referring to intimacy or affection being more fearsome than he-man violence, presumably, and then Fiona Apple’s line “Keep turnin’ that chin” in “Get Him Back” (in tandem with the description of the guy who “could barely even look me in the face”), again placing more value, and challenge, on true romantic interaction [4].
Relating to how earlier I alluded to Cat Power’s career being set on a sort of arc, with her debut album What Would the Community Think deliberately underwhelming, Moon Pix deliberately fragmentary, You Are Free bloated and then The Greatest concisely affective, there is no doubt that she’s a good-looking woman, and “Lived in Bars” lyrically presents prostitution, with cinematography which is colorful and fresh, but more importantly, very, very postmodern and artistically allusive, if not downright allegorical [5].
From what I know of Chan Marshall, she grew up in Florida, she’s got that song “Names” from You Are Free (probably her best album) about all of those ghetto denizens dealing with crack, prostitution, suicide et. al… she hasn’t exactly had the Beverly Hills upbringing which would almost seem to fictitiously jibe with her appearance. True to form, in the lyrics to “Lived in Bars,” she wonderfully euphemizes the selling of the sex act, but she takes this euphemism a step further cinematically, similar to the laugh-track in the Mallory Knox-upbringing scene in Natural Born Killers meant to comedically dissociate, or render the victim’s life as if it were a comedy — an old, virile-looking and aggressive man comes up and kisses her aggressively, and she just laughs coquettishly. She gets up in a frilly dress with a PBR sign hanging in the background, in a dusty looking attic type thing, the very sort of inhuman representation of the siren, the pleasure-bearer, but nowhere does anger, drug-addiction, or any other perfectly logical symptom of the prostitute come to the surface either in the lyrics or the cinema. In this regard, “Lived in Bars” plays as an effective commentary on the artist’s own career — this is how much crap she’s been through. She’s celebrating having come full circle, in relation with how the title track opener on The Greatest also retrospectively self-examines, too.
“Cross Bones Style” was a strong enough statement in music itself, as I’ve mentioned, to garner the reference in the K-os, and indeed, with me, I’ve come along to listen to that song over and over and pretty much hanging on her every word, trying to piece together an all-encompassing picture of what seems to be her divine representation of truth. In the visual portrayal of “Cross Bones Style” Marshall to less of an extent is “sexy”: her hair is cropped short almost like Juian Casablancas’ of The Strokes, and she’s not wearing the revealing garb which dominated the promiscuous “Lived in Bars”: instead she looks like she’s getting ready to go out to play clarinet in the Cleveland orchestra. Hardly does her expression change, for the entire shooting, as others around her employ foolish and comedic dances. Hardly, neither, is her expression even scrutable for any of this time. She looks as if a being not capable of doing anything, not for inability, but just for being frozen within itself, as if the entire world made of fragile, crystalline ice, and the individual beholding it were omnipresently on the verge of death, either from physicality, or from total, crushing and all-encompassing irrelevance.
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[1] It is admittedly via assumption that I come to the conclusion that “He War” was actually filmed in 2003: imvdb.com has it at 2017, although that site has been surprisingly unhelpful in this whole current quest of mine. Much better has been just watching one video on Youtube and then just watching another pop up. It’s like a trickling bladder system, more or less.
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[2] According to Wikipedia the artist even herself amusingly called it a “Horrible song. It’s supposed to sound like the original recordings– more Stones-y. With a live band. But when I went to record it by myself in the studio doing everything, it sounds like…”
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[3] Ack, who’m I kidding: I want a video for “Speak for Me” NOW.
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[4] There is also the strong possibility that Cat Power was actually commenting on THE war of the time, Operation Shock and Awe in Iraq. Check Corin Tucker and Sleater-Kinney’s 2002 stomper “Combat Rock” for an uncanny artist ability to be prescient in handling current events (the war started officially in March 2003, before either You Are Free or One Beat were actually released).
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[5] Check LIVE’s showstopping spot for “Freaks” for some gutty allegory in music cinema.

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