Monday, June 25, 2012


From Roland Barthes' Mourning Diary:
I brood over Tolstoy's story Father Sergius (recently saw the bad film). In the final episode he finds peace (Meaning, or Exemption from Meaning) when he encounters a little girls as she was in his childhood now become a grandmother, Mavra, who simply concerns herself with the family she loves, without raising any problem of appearance, of sanctity, of the Church, etc. I tell myself: that's maman. She never employs a meta-language, a pose, a deliberate image. That's what 'Sanctity" is.
These are some of Roland Barthes' thoughts about the neutral here, I think. And he defines what being "post-meaning" is all about as well: not employing a meta-language, a pose, a deliberate image. He speaks of this in Camera Lucida as well, when he explores the notion of the "true" photograph (impossible except in very young photographic subjects; otherwise, we know better and we pose).

Source: Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary, Richard Howard, trans. (London: Notting Hill Editions, 2011), 209. [This is a beautifully bound book, and wonderfully readable, especially because of its sewn binding.]

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Feist and Canada (and Barthes)

This post can start with the following quote from Dr. Peter Simon, the president of the Royal Conservatory of Music (based in Toronto), on the occasion of its 125th anniversary, and upon the bestowing upon Leslie Feist the title of Honourary Fellow of the Royal Conservatory: “The exceptional music created by Feist . . . has strengthened Canada’s standing throughout the world as an incubator of creativity.” This comment is somewhat ironic since virtually all of Feist's recorded output was recorded outside of Canada (Let It Die and The Reminder were recording in France, while Metals was recorded in California; perhaps only Feist's first album, Monarch (Lay Your Jewelled Head Down) was recorded in Canada, in Toronto). These creative works might have been "incubated" in Canada (though even that is arguable), but they were "birthed" elsewhere.

To begin a study of Roland Barthes' "neutral," it is useful to consider where the neutral lies: according to Barthes, the neutral is a "third term," that seems to be found between binaries. So, in this case, the most obvious binary is: Canadian/not Canadian. For Barthes, the third term is there between them. The "third term" can be thought of in the context of gender (the neuter, or the drone bee in a hive), or in the context of politics (Switzerland as a neutral), or in the terms of sound, that is, "the annihilation of opposition between sounds within certain languages." (xiv) This third way of conceiving of the third term is probably the most appropriate here, in that Feist annihilates the opposition between "Canadian" and "not Canadian." She inhabits that "other place" (I'm now in love with my own classification of "Faux-Toronto" and the "space of the music of Metals." For Barthes, the neutral is "neither-nor," which seems to fit Feist quite well. She is neither Canadian nor not Canadian. She is, just like the definition for CCM. I'm not missing anything in that last sentence: Feist is what she is (religious connotations aside).

To use Richard Howard's term in translating Barthes' text, Feist baffles the paradigm Canadian/not Canadian.

There is a bit of a difference between Feist as Barthes' neutral, and Barthes' own conception of the neutral. The neutral is a sort of "degree zero," a language without sign, and thus exempt from meaning. I'm not sure that Feist being a neutral makes her exempt from meaning. In fact, it seems to work the other way: she is infinitely full of meaning (I am reminded of Victor Turner and the liminal, that is, full of optimistic, infinite, possibility).

If Feist's vocal injury around 1998 or 1999 was one site of destruction and rebirth (as I have argued in the past), then her retreat from public life after her success ("1234") and her response is her second rebirth. Her first branded her in a particular way, marking her physically (resulting in the very sound we hear). The second rebirth freed her from that. Now she cannot be pinned down; she is not exempt from meaning, but now she "cannot be determined, arrested." She is "post-meaning." (Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, 87)


Author Unknown, "News Releases: The Royal Conservatory's 125th Anniversary Royal Occasion Gala Honours Measha Brueggergosman and Feist," The Royal Conservatory (9 May 2012); available from; Internet; accessed 6 June 2012.

Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, Richard Howard, trans. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977).

Rosalind E. Krauss and Dennis Hollier, "Translator's Preface," in Roland Barthes, The Neutral, R. E. Krauss & D. Hollier, trans. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), xiii-xvii.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Feist present in a sort of "third term" (neutral) space?

I was reading an article from a Madison-based website called "77-Square," which did a kind of profile of Leslie Feist as a precursor to her concert on 3 June 2012 at the Capitol Theater. In the short interview, the singer makes some interesting points, providing for the reader a framework for her latest creative expression, the album Metals. She mentions that the new album is a response to the success of the previous one (The Reminder from 2007 and, especially, the hit single "1234"): "There's only so much honesty and presence you can bring to talking about the same thing over and over, or singing the same songs over and over. . . . It's really important to me to stay present and to stay a part of the whole thing when it's in my name."

The article outlines 2 particular notions, in order of importance (by the way, the one above is of secondary importance, though I will return to it below). The first part of the article talks about how Feist's response to her success was manifest, namely with the recording of the album in Big Sur, California. She talks about how John Steinbeck is the "godfather" of the new album, and that his work makes the reader think that "you've lived some meaningful, deep life there [in Big Sur] amidst all these salty characters." But, it turns out that Big Sur is not the ideal place once thought: "Prior to the February 2011 recording sessions, which took place on a sprawling coastal ranch, the singer believed California to be eternally sunny, with, in her own words, 'oranges trickling down from every tree.' In that regard, northern California's sometimes-harsh weather proved to be a bit of a wake-up call." The article writer goes on to suggest that the weather was stormy and "quite frigid."

Consider Feist's words:
I think there's definitely something about us being so cold during the making of the record. . . . I think all your senses are sharp and alive when you're dealing with less-than-humane conditions. There's a very intense intention behind everyone's playing.
So, remember what Feist stated about her time after The Reminder; she suggested that there is "only so much honesty and presence," and that she wanted to make sure to "stay present." The cold did that for her, as do her frequent breaks from the tour to return to Toronto (her home as stated in the article). So what does Toronto and cold weather have in common? Both of those things are Canadian.

Except that the cold she is talking about is in Big Sur, California. And the Toronto she is talking about is simply a place, a "moment," of refuge, and one that she even tries to recreate while on tour, by cooking for herself and shopping at local vegetable markets: "to take ownership of my days a little bit more." Her refuges are a momentary Toronto and faux-Toronto, Big Sur and the music (as space) of Metals. This is the neutral that I'm looking at.

Finally, from an article in the October 2011 issue of Elle magazine:
She tells me that she is approaching the release of the album and cross-country tour "quietly, with no presumptions that it will be what it was—I don't want to feed any fire." But I notice her hands trembling at one point, and I feel bad—like I'm violating her desire for privacy. [emphasis added]
The trembling hands act for me in the same ways as Barthes' punctum, that part of a photograph that resists codification, but pierces the viewer. This is what it does for me. But it also points to this "third term." She is not present in the interview with Elle, not really, not her. She is not being vulnerable, she is being uncomfortable. She is not herself; she suggests, though, that her self is in Big Sur, in faux-Toronto (with her cooking and shopping for food on her own). And in the music "with only the most basic tools, including a desk, a guitar, a single floor tom, a mallet and a 1950s Sears catalog amplifier she described as 'half broken.'" (from the "77-Square" article).


Andy Downing, "5678...Feist Talks About Life After Megahit '1234,'" 77-Square (31 May 2012); available from; Internet; accessed 31 May 2012.

Kathryn Hudson, "Looking Forward," Elle Canada (October 2011), 130.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Some thoughts on Leslie Feist

As I prepare for the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (Canadian branch) conference in a couple of weeks in Wolfville, I am (naturally) thinking about Leslie Feist (and what I have to write about). What comes to mind immediately, and I think what one of the problems with my analysis of dear Leslie, is this: what does it mean to be Canadian? At a recent conference (PCAC in Niagara Falls in May), I attended an excellent panel on the Polaris Prize, for Canadian music. In that panel presentation, and in the discussion that followed, there was the question as to how one defines what "Canadian" actually means. This is not a new question, and it seems that it has yet to be answered in a satisfactory manner.

What came from the discussion reminded me of something I had come across while preparing a class on popular music history. Strange as it might be, I think it might be helpful to look at the definition of the subcultural music called Contempory Christian Music. Some define it as “bad songs written about God by white people,” or as a simple euphemism for rock music (at least, the "contemporary" part of the title does this). As for "Christian," it could be the content, or the author which defines the genre as Christian (both of these are problematic, by the way).

So, a better definition is as follows: "Contemporary Christian Music is music that appeals to self-identified fans of contemporary Christian music on account of a perceived connection to what they regard as Christianity." In other words, it is self-defining; it is what it is. Much of this comes from Mark Allen Powell's introduction to his excellent Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002).

I can't help to think, though, that Canadian music suffers from the difficulties in genre definition as CCM. In other words, the MAPL system might help (2 of the 4 criteria: music, artist, production, lyric), but it isn't perfect. But perhaps Canadian music is simply what we say it is.

Is Feist (as a musical entity, including all she sings and all she is, in terms of celebrity) Canadian? No (at least, that's what I'll be arguing, that she is something else). But yes, she is because we (most of us) say so. Consider Powell's definition now bastardized for your academic pleasure: "Canadian Music is music that appeals to self-identified fans of Canadian music on account of a perceived connection to what they regard as being Canadian."

Now, what would Barthes say about that? Wait for it. It's bound to be exciting.

Or something.