Tag Archives: overreading

An engaged audience is a disengaged public

Chris asked me the other night what I thought the opening of House of Cards was telling us, and in fact I think the credits are telling us quite a lot. They’re crystal clear and sped up: we see cars flashing through the capitol’s arteries, clouds contracting and expanding across the sky, trees quivering, day turning into night.

It’s a hyperreality that, taken together, reads as a distancing mechanism. It aestheticizes the show, stripping meaning from the content of the scenes in just the same way that the show itself does. As more than one critic has pointed out, the people of House of Cards are more like chess pieces than characters: agents without agency, pieces the writers move around in order to simulate the prestige dramas of cable networks in the same way that the House Whip moves magnets back and forth to signal the shifting allegiances of a political body concerned with power rather than efficacy, with form rather than content.

House of Cards is a show for generation willing to be outraged but not to act out that outrage. It’s designed to provoke audience engagement, which is precisely the opposite of political engagement. We discuss the political machinations and policies on comment boards and at wine parties instead of discussing actual politics, not apathetic but disenfranchised. Policymic has concluded that we’re not a democracy; House of Cards proves it.

In fact, we could say that House of Cards represents a certain kind of hollowing out: it removes the core of the prestige dramas it strives to imitate, creating a simulacrum of a show rather than the show itself. In a post-industrial America, with a hollowed-out middle class, a hollowed-out economy, and a hollowed-out infrastructure, House of Cards might not the kind of TV show we need, but it’s certainly the kind we deserve.

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Wrecking the Figure/ Ground

Miley_Cyrus_-_Wrecking_BallMiley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” is almost unfairly easy to parody, but over repeated, sweaty listenings–“Wrecking Ball” is the second to last song on my running playlist, when I really need the agony of a failed relationship to keep my feet moving–I’ve come to see it as lyrically, even syntactically sophisticated. (Stay with me.)

In poetry criticism, the “interlocutor” is the person who the speaker implicitly addresses, but let’s just call him “Liam.” In one of the early lines, the speaker sings, “Don’t you ever say I just walked away.” Without punctuation, which I couldn’t find anywhere on the Internet, the line could be read, “Don’t you ever say [that] I just walked away,” or “Don’t you ever say, ‘I just walked away.’” Sure, the first version makes a bit more intuitive sense, but both readings are available: the antecedent of “I” could be the speaker (“Miley”), or it could just as easily be the interlocutor (“Liam”).

And then the chorus smashes (ahem) in, laying out the governing trope:

I came in like a wrecking ball

I never hit so hard in love

All I wanted was to break your walls

All you ever did was wreck me

Yeah, you, you wreck me.

We start off with the fairly obvious simile of Miley being like a destructive force that breaks down the walls of another’s heart and then, almost surprisingly, end somewhere more complicated: by the end of the stanza the wrecking ball is Liam, and Miley is the ruined fortress. The tenors and vehicles are unstable, impermanent. (In metaphors and similes, “vehicle” is the thing whose attributes are being borrowed–in this case, a wrecking ball and walls; and “tenor” is the thing whose attributes are being illuminated by the borrowing–in this case, both Miley and Liam.)

This reading helps clear up a disagreement about lyrics in a later stanza. Some sources give

I never meant to start a war

I just wanted you to let me in

I guess I should’ve let you in

While some give

I never meant to start a war

I just wanted you to let me in

I guess I should’ve let you win

A haphazard Googling didn’t lead me to any kind of “official” source, but, pace Miley’s songwriters, the correct version should be, even if it’s not, the first. That first version cleverly picks up the unstable relationship between speaker and interlocutor, formally constructing the absolute destruction of the relationship that the song describes: a war so intense that at the end it’s not clear which side won, because neither did.

Setting aside any pearl-clutching about the visuals of the music video (which I think are lovely), and the upsetting appropriation of twerking and black women’s bodies in “We Can’t Stop” (which I won’t even try to close-read away), “Wrecking Ball” brilliantly evokes the way relationships feel when you’re nineteen. In the end, the lyrical slipperiness suggests to me that the real governing trope here isn’t the wrecking ball so much as the inability to distinguish between Self and Other–again, stay with me–that, let’s be honest, is pretty typical of intense teenage relationships. The song might be an exorcism of Miley’s past and a middle finger to Liam Hemsworth, but it’s also a lyrically complex exploration of identity and obsession.

Well done, sirs.

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