What makes a piece of art good? What makes a piece of art useful? I would maintain that the major component is in the art’s making some tendency of the imagination tangible, to give it heft and definition. Marshall McLuhan, making this same point in essence, but with more of an alarmist slant, said in Understanding Media, “Art at its most significant is a distant early warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen.”
McLuhan seems like a good point of entry into the endlessly processed and reprocessed world of TV Girl. I have listened to this less than 10 minute ep more than ten times in the past day, and it seems to have crystallized my simultaneous feelings of unease and near narcotic attraction to the so-called “chill wave” genre. On the one hand, once the initial aesthetic hurdle of sampling is overcome, the tight economical structuring of each song on the ep becomes readily apparent. These are pop songs, just composed of samples, with choruses and bridges; the standard trimmings, but there is an agreement between the form of the music and the lyrical content rare for a pop record.
What one singles out in a sentimental reminiscence is very telling-some might reach out for a person’s peculiar inflection, a place they lived. TV Girl meanwhile defines its memory of a forgotten amour by the fact she listened to “Benny and the Jets”. On later track “Lizzy Come Back to Life”, a tribute to Lizzy Mercier Descloux, they pine after her with more conviction than anything one assumed they had direct experience with. With the lush and warm bed of samples “Lizzy” lies on, its sense of false nostalgia becomes all encompassing. The object of admiration is someone TV Girl never knew, the notes around which it frames its expression not their own. It is the best track present, a bracing step forward into the great looking backwards.
On the EP’s single “Baby You Were There”, the chorus “Baby you were there /Ohhh baby you were there” is repeated over and over, seeming less in the context to be an assertion of the song’s intended message, that simply the presence of a lover is enough, as much as a sardonic groping for presence of any sort. The use of the past tense weds it to the other tracks; nothing is ever just ‘here’ here.
Closer “Your Own Religion” is a hooky and incredibly mellow detailing of a growing apart, and lines like “I guess I do things different/but I guess I can’t complain” will be paired with “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb”‘s “Life can be so fair” couplet in the eventual sweepstakes to encapsulate the attitudes of the era through the funhouse mirror of pop culture.
McLuhan again, this time in conversation with Norman Mailer: ““Every age creates as an Utopian image a nostalgic rear-view mirror image of itself, which puts it thoroughly out of touch with the present. The present is the enemy.” As nostalgic rear-view mirror images go, you could do a whole lot worse than Benny and the Jetts.
RIYL: Cults, Washed Out, Neon Indian, Panda Bear