The Confounded Praise of Emmy the Great

I want to say that Emmy the Great is good, and how. This won’t be light work. To praise her usefully, I think, you have to describe her with enough accuracy that you’re forthcoming even about her faults; this may give rise to an air of hostility. Let me then vouch for my intentions, and run my own risks with opinion, by reproducing a poem of mine that took a song of the Great’s as impetus and model:

To a theme of Emmy the Great’s

Not until the fax is handled, never.
A hollow retch. I want the regions fixed.
Death, death is a giant.
Now the damn windscreen, de-ice it fully?
Fortyish. Fuckit: time time.
Not the greenest of tombs
whereas I will degrade (degrade and soon).

Ring the wife I have folders of it.
Nothing can dent my mood, or birdsong.
Hurry cretin. Noise-cancelling for you
they are virtually speakers – what’s that siren racket?
Then I am old –
Arulpra-, Arulpragasam. For it is cold
on the riprap and I could have let him be.

This superb work furnishes me with an occasion to write about ‘MIA’ [beware the crappy transcriptions] per se and in particular about a certain perplexing quality of the Great’s music it exemplifies. ‘MIA’ is by any measure an unplaceable song. What reads, in the literalist light of the album booklet, like the crass and careless abandonment of sense for sound is redeemed somehow in the cadences of singing, and by the intricacy they bring out: ‘brake’ repeats the vowel in ‘rain’, but can someone really forget how to brake? Would anyone hold her hands (plural) against the face of the driver of a car? What but a round in the back of the head could have ‘sprayed’ the driver’s face ‘Across the radio as it played’? There is something dreamed up, inauthentic and casual about that—the captious reader will insist.
            There’s good sense in these cavils but they are cavils, and subject as such to cavilling comeuppances. Perhaps the Great would have done better to have put ‘snow’, but braking in the rain does indeed take skills that a driver of brief experience, spooked and just released from the ill-timed fondling of a passenger, might forget. You can, barely plausibly, deprive ‘sprayed’ of its passive force and render it into a participial adjective with half the connotation of ‘spread’. Perhaps the irremediable hash made of ‘lives through the blow’, with its preparatory complement ‘but yo’, counts against this reading, but the point is brought: there’s more here than dismissal can do right by.
            ‘MIA’ is both uncharacteristic and characteristic of its singer-writer, and most trivially uncharacteristic in that it’s one of her best things. Because of its boy-girl set-up you expect it to mount the Great’s workhorse of a hobby-horse, the topic of Relationships. But it doesn’t. The humming girl wonders later on, ‘Who’s going to cancel my date?’ This ‘two’ aren’t a couple.
            That line is suggestive also of what is characteristic about the song. ‘MIA’ is the depiction of a fatal crash that renounces explicitness as impotent, and prefers to suggest. Being oblique, it lets the listener infer what’s told from what’s shown. More than oblique, though, it is indeterminate and doesn’t allow us finally to be sure that it puts what is characteristic in it to use to conjure a new effect or that this effect just ensues from the collision of a characteristic quality with new matter. I mean: ‘Who’s going to cancel my date?’, like ‘I always liked this singer’ and like the song’s impassive slump of an ending,* is an instance of the flatness that crops up in all her songs and often dictates their terms, but in the story that ‘MIA’ imparts to us they are mimetic of shock. It’s the outstanding merit of the song. Even ‘but yo’ might be thought to simulate a shaken chumminess that hopes to restrain horror but can’t.

I’ve submitted that to say she is good we have to say what Emmy the Great is like. That flat or neutral quality for which ‘I always liked this singer’ can stand is predominant in her songs in tone and substance. But to describe it is not as easy as to say the words. It is manifested differently in the self-made circumstance of each song. It itself is a manifestation of a generational tone, that of the generation (it had everything it needed and nothing at stake) of which my millennial contemporaries are the final ebb: the numbed ‘postmodern’ irony which Anderson distils and Wallace pitted himself against. Variously through its applications, this flatness can vitiate or enrich the Great’s conceits; I will engage its shortcomings below, but now I want to turn to its organising influence in the songs on that variety of conceit called character.
To hold off the circularity that lours over this question (flatness is characteristic of her characters?), I need to approach the greater, never decisively approachable question of autobiography. There is a lot of Emma-Lee Moss in Emmy the Great. Interviews have her identifying the pseudonym as a nickname from school—it began as a ‘rap name’—or an email address from university, and glossing it not in terms of, say, Alexander the Great’s agnomen, but of the jaded flatness I just brought up: ‘Emmy the … great’. Other names in the songs appear to be from life. But—even if for a few readers the criticism is in the guessing—the extent to which Emmy is Emma-Lee is unknowable. ‘Extent’, in fact, isn’t the word for the shifting overlap we’d want to comprehend. Cursory listens had left me presuming the addressee of ‘On the Museum Island’ was male until an interview showed her a close friend, without explaining the monied father and the Princess-of-Wales machinery [update: this is it]. That song recalls something of the setting of ‘Two Steps Forward’, the best off the Edward E.P. and one that prompted me to reconsider ‘First Love’, since both seemed to be discrepant reflections on the singer’s first fuck. As I’d thought the ‘love’ that ‘ran out’ between the singer’s legs and made ‘puddles on the floor’ was blood too, I’d taken the chorus line ‘And the sky was so much bluer!’ as evidence of the exhilaration of a rite of passage dispensed with. Analogous to that, if you read ‘MIA’ in a misgiving mood, certain slipshod phrases look like artefacts of storytelling. In a footnote to ‘Dylan’, however, Moss is nonchalant in educating us: ‘This is a diss on the guy I went to school with …’
Emmy the Great more than once alludes to Eliot. We wouldn’t say of him, while easily conceding the justice of the lemma ‘dramatic monologue’, that his Prufrock is only a character insomuch as he isn’t autobiographical. The self, in a narrow definition, is the matter of necessarily first resort, and in a broad conception the only matter there is. So the Great’s characters—not poses, not masks—are best characterised as different ways to be, evoked and invoked, tried out and discarded variously yet inconsistently from a range quite trivially conterminous with her self; all refracting less trivially her characteristic flatness (which must of course inhabit something to find expression), and all inherently concerned with an inherent fact about the self which presents the selves: her femininity.
What are these characters—not discrete but which we can tell apart? The Great’s two principals are the ingenue (guileless, gawky, coy sometimes) and the mercurial tease; but manifest now and then is a quality of frankness, liable to lead to frank tenderness, which is neither naive nor calculating. The first two represent ways to be a girl or woman. Indeed her ‘ingenue’ often sounds like the affectionate resurrection of a self sloughed off, attended by a shift in vocal manner producing a girlish tone that reminds me of Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (cf ‘Edward come and sit with me’ at the beginning of ‘Bad Things Coming…’ and ‘But I thought’ about two minutes in to ‘Secret Circus’). The ingenue character is unstable from the first because it is not ingenuous to act. The Great handles it with strategic grace, and in her songs it assumes the role of a favourite refuge from which to promulgate criticism that gains pungency in virtue of the character’s freedom to feign, at her uninvested remove, bemusement or pitying surprise.† The Great’s attraction to such devices of distancing is apparent as well in her fondness for quotation, and of placing quotations in the foreground of a song—a number of those on First Love use a quotation of some brand in the chorus. But the machinations required to manage the act themselves ordain its fall, because it’s in the nature of our machinations to breed over time, becoming higher- and higher-maintenance, so that the selfconsciousness they compel compels a self-abasement that betrays the ingenue’s willingness to pay costs in the service of her interests, and returns her to sexual play. It’s a besetting paradox: if a girl’s progress hinges on deniability—if she is expected to alert or seduce men while censoring all suggestion of knowingness won from experience—one competent way to proceed is to seem incompetent: to orchestrate inadvertency. What, then, is to be her fate on success, when her incompetence is made known and she is seen tacitly to have allowed that competence is something to stifle?
This drab quandary must account in part for the Great’s reliance on the second ‘principal’ character, into which the ingenue blurs at the point when her guilelessness begins to look self-possessed. This character is the Great’s flirt, for whom the best word is ‘mercurial’, but who is what used to be called ‘cute’, ‘pert’, ‘saucy’, ‘importunate’; she might more formally be ‘goading’, ‘insolent’, ‘provocative’. Most of these words drag behind them a retinue of implications about power. I want to argue that that’s the point, and isn’t inauspicious. The mercurial character is more stable in performance because its performed condition, if not bandied about, does not jeopardise but characterises it. The Great in this character deploys spite to cast a feinting gambit which pre-emptively fixes her on the losing or defeated side of an ‘insubordination game’. If in so doing she invites dominance she defines it too, and takes a punt at controlling her fate: when this character raises the possibility of submission (‘make me’), she may become seductive, but her seduction is a crafted thing, rather self-determined and artful than lawless like the will of the female body in men’s perception. She cannot be judged ingratiating because she cleaves in behaviour to the premise of two idiosyncratically desiring counterparts, whereas to be found to behave with an ingratiating eye to one’s peers is the seminal peril of ing√©nuit√©, whose operating premise is moral elevation. A feminism that refused this character’s power the status of power would debase itself in unwitting obeisance to masculine terms: this power is taken with but contains the conventional power of masculinity, to which it is hardly a challenge to adopt its terms—both because they rig the game, persuading the woman to forgo the opportunities her recognition of feminine power would free up, and because they get power wrong. With this equipment, it’s open to you to answer the cynic who asserts that the Great’s character-playing is an elaborate way to dissemble ordinary lust by observing that their cynical vision of it is founded in masculine feeling: there’s no fair reason why the songs’ erotic force shouldn’t earn them all the more legitimacy.
            The Great’s quality of frankness is distinguishable from her tease and her ingenue together in its dissociation from contrivance, but it serves both. In ‘Edward Is Dedward’ a mercurial character, in a way that anticipates ‘MIA’’s miming shock to enforce by omission the gravity of a death, sets in relief by occluding it a naked acknowledgement of sadness. Her ingenue co-opts this quality when, before her reserve has been impugned, she is unimpressible and unshockable. But it is expressed more interestingly in isolation from these characters, in three applications (since I’m counting)—in the frank tenderness and solicitude of which the breathy cracking of ‘Well I’ in ‘Well I wouldn’t leave, would I, / Till I saw you again in the light?’ from ‘The Easter Parade’ 2 is emblematic but which in a habitual excess deteriorates into soppiness; in that untitillated disinhibition—free of febrile expectations or of the ostentation of self-exposure—serving all the songs but visible clearest in bodily, indeed obstetric, contexts; and in the presence of religion. The Great’s unabashed and underwhelmed nature would, you’d think, work brilliantly for secularism with religion (in dialogue or duel); and so often enough it proves. But if her characteristic flatness issues in, by turns, the ingenue’s blunt unsophistication, the flirt’s caprices of prodding spite and of disavowal and the frank singer’s boredom with taboo, such indifference is shown to be partial in contact with religion, where its narcissistic failings deaden it to lapses of flippancy.

When I was listening again to the Great’s songs for this post I jotted in my notebook, ‘All about love—though not all all about love.’ And somewhat like people they are. ‘The Woods’, to which I was introduced by another fan, entertains and employs but isn’t mastered by love. Anticipating the protagonists of ‘The Easter Parade’, the singer and her consort stumble upon a congregation, which inspires the chorused words (I’ve no text to punctuate by):

The stars are not our conscience
They are just another light in our eyes
They are just another light keeping us blind.

There is Emmy the Great, deflatingly frank, and faithless. This singer’s secularism or atheism is important to her and (along with secularism tout court) important to me. Accordingly her songs are haunted by the notion of a dreamless ‘sleepe of death’ which secularism conducts us to. The Great is impermanent. But—in ‘The Woods’—‘I know that I will find you [her consort …] / In the morning at the end of my life’:

I keep the thought that when I die
They will carry me and lay me by your side
And in amongst the dirt
At last our roads again will merge.

I dither about this and find it indeterminate, like ‘MIA’. Is it its purpose to substitute a feeble hope for what the secularism it declares must spirit away, or does it reiterate the injustice done to belief’s relinquishment by that inane chorus in mooting a surrogate just as half-arsed?
            It is the Great’s method to apply the imagery that science—in particular, astronomy and anthropology—has coined or made available to self-reflexive ends. Too often when she undertakes this it strikes one with the flavour of expediency alone: it is her narcissism that permits her to treat the astonishments of science as useful things to rope in for prettification. Let me propose that there are matters of fact which one ought to baulk at articulating with matter-of-factness, not least because matter-of-factness in broaching matters of fact like these will revert in the mean listener to teacherliness and superciliousness and mild spitefulness—that is to the patronage of derision. The matter-of-fact is bad at accommodating shock: properly grasped, these matters are always shocking; they repel wisdom and rebuff knowingness. I’m surprised that I exist. My surprise that I exist is when I’m caught offguard. I’m not sure we can be—or sure we should aspire to be—conversant with the facts that shock.§
            To refine the point: I have felt in my encounter with her songs that the Great’s plying of the secular occasion to narcissistic ends has the effect that her puncturing tartness diffuses through the secularism she conceives, so she is tartly secular as well as secularly tart. Though I take exception to it, for this I’m in her debt. Her seditious lyrics seem to have induced me to surprise a hunger in myself ‘to be more serious’, and to gravitate with it not to church ground but to church manners. It seems I want her to be religious about irreligion. I miss in her secularism the ecclesiastic hush, the tremor and trepidation of ceremony which is a form of romance. It’s open to Emmy the Great to put this argument in answer to my criticism. A friend and follower of science, she might argue, should be well acquainted with its tendency to disappoint our common sense and notion-making. ‘In some way, where falsification is disappointing, the attitude of science is disappointment. I motion that into art.’ Where this reply (with which I’m in honest sympathy) falters is very much where it leaves unsaid the fact that not to be—not to be able to be—at ease with disappointments of science’s creation is our human lot. By that recognition the Great’s lapse is unmasked as one of moral practice. In an arena of bucklings-under-strain and teeterings-on-the-edge, the outsider is obliged to tread gingerly. A moral secularism should not be tart but patient and should bear foremost in mind a felt conception of its own corollaries—harsh enough as they are to have most of us gliding hounded into the arms of mendacious authority. Regrettably moreover the Great’s existential flippancy has the side effect of lending credence to the impression that secularists are secular out of a failure of imaginative feeling: that they don’t experience all the terror of the predicament of living antecedent to faith’s lurch from adulthood’s foreboding intelligence. I hope that I am not understood to be petitioning Emmy the Great to suffer. Instead, I am bodying forth an intuition that the main thing about the secular facts is to feel them and to know them in feeling. There surely should be space in secularism for the disappointment of scientific learning, but its mundanity is only mundane in the light or shadow of our unapprenticed silliness, under which we still walk and may for the rest of Holocene time. Secularism implies its own hierarchy of emotions among which the negative awe of the astronomical context of earth is pre-eminent. Secular man is unstill. The dichotomy I’ve gone a way to catching at work in the music of Emmy the Great contrasts her reflexive complacency about subordinating secular figures to the piques and whims of amorous procedure with that elementary tension.
            This is the end of ‘The Easter Parade Part II’, curter sequel of the Great’s best song to furnish itself with secular iconography:

And if the winds have turned today,
It’s because it’s inevitable.             
Everyone knows
That the wind has to blow.

It peters out or shrugs in the usual style. The drift of this song is tenderly to perform inducements to comfort and to shore its recipient up. In this endeavour it takes from its conceptual habitat the spooky information of secularism to compose in large part its metaphorical architecture. But I think it falls short of the coup it’s appointed to follow. The song ‘The Easter Parade’, with the chanted refrains ‘But there’s no, there’s no hope’ and ‘There’s no such thing as ghosts’, enacts an involving vacillation between a tone of stoic (but compassionate) assurance and intimations of the mordancy of the tease—for whom ‘There’s no such thing…’ would be an occasion for contrariness that cost nothing—and intimations of a reading that would perceive the Sunday schoolchildren’s belief as a thing resented. In these lines, Id hazard, the singer is not jeering:

            And there is a light that hits the sky,
                And then it is midnight again.
                And there is my mother, my father,
                And you, and we are all impermanent.

The rhythm works on the record—where you can make out, if you want, a tutting emphasis on the terminal plosive (‘impermanent’) which bears the self-congratulatory force of a ‘so there!’ But I don’t: for me, the first two lines belong with Emmy the Great’s finest, because they do with secularism what I want art to do, communicating inexplicably the right shade of shock, unspoken but said with disappointed truthfulness. But I think it’s indeterminate, which is why it’s good. Of this triumph, ‘It’s because it’s inevitable’ etc is an undeserving heir. Those lines’ exploitation of the secular resources is inadequate to the extent that it is trite, because if the resources’ function feels token, and the singer’s recourse to them automatic like a prayer knocked together on the brink of luck, their action has not been earned by cognitive diligence and in the circumstances they are misused
            A friend of mine has some relevant words, and I quote from memory:

We do not know the grief of what we do
In our storm’s eye
Of selfishness. In our absolute calm.

I said that to say Emmy the Great was good I would have to describe her and said that to say she was good wouldn’t be light work. You may have noticed me slightly throwing up clouds of approximately-related words in this attempt to catch her essence alive. But I’ll venture now the word that does it is disillusion. Disillusion has been the inheritance of the last century’s best intellectual work and can be a terminus or an origin. When the Great’s enlistment of secular disillusion for songwriting purposes invests it with a substantive rationale in the songs she renders it an origin; when it’s evident she is disillusioned at her private convenience and her disillusion is alienated calmly from—so indisposed to register—the gallows camaraderie of men and women at midday, it negates itself and lapses there. Because secularism matters—about this the Great and I agree, though I’m uncertain how far hers is not the excitable antitheism of a defector from domestic faith—I don’t want to welcome any secularism whose motto is: ‘Together, we execrate others’ solidarity. We are alert and deaf to God’s pealing whine!’

Lest after that there is hostility in the air I want to affirm that I’m a fan, bewitched on and off; the Secret Circus EP and ‘The Easter Parade’, as well as various arresting lines distributed through the work, are things I passionately like. I haven’t had the wherewithal to discuss all the technical details in her lyrics that are well-achieved and worthwhile (such as the ways she makes lyrics mimetic by playing off their sung rhythm against features of the accompaniment)—or indeed to chide her for her easy assonances. I want to affirm also that I don’t present a Key to All Emmys the Great, only a version of her songs inflected by me, or of myself inflected by her songs, so that the flat disillusion I notice everywhere in her secularism; in admirable lines like ‘Every time that I think of you / Have to go to the toilet’ from ‘The Hypnotist’s Son’ (which I love) and even the sulkily beckoning cover to First Love which superimposes a small heart on the site of the singer’s womb (in line with her track three: ‘I put my hand across my gut / I plan to feed it with a heart’); in the horny indignation of one character and the provisionally-indulged outspokenness of another—this is subject to the freest scepticism about my competence to reckon with her justly. I confess to difficulties with a few songs, which seem private. ‘Secret Circus’ is electrically written but my state-of-the-art guess about what it’s about—this preceded by a run of half-measures encompassing an abortion, religion again, a spry valediction—is that, springing an arbitrary trap, it asks whomever it’s intended for, Do you like me enough to follow me here and believe me in this, which is a lie? I imagine there’s a strain of privacy intrinsic to its structure which came about in a sequence that proceeded from making emotion over into words to failing to scrutinise uncompromisingly enough the reasons and intentions one had in that: such a process may cast out intractable emotions by displacing then containing them in written objects, but the work that results tends not to be very usable separately from its original burden of dispersing emotion, since any manifold art will prescribe implacable stolidity of technique. It’s fortunate, then, that more often than not when the Great is private she isn’t irreducibly so. Instead in ways I have described she cultivates a luminous indeterminacy that’s fertile in proportion as it sanctions poetry, which can be ambiguous which is something better. And it isn’t heartening to recognise that all the graceless toils and doublings-back of this post have been to say that Emmy the Great is good because I don’t know why. 

* These drily understated endings are a tic of hers. My favourite is, ‘It’s so weird how time goes on’, from ‘Canopies and Drapes’ (the thrust of which is to parody an era of seduction gone)profounder than it first seems, because it is weird. ‘Secret Circus’ also concludes inconclusively.
† I wrote a tweet that called upon a precursor of this observation—‘EmmytG does “tart contemptuous leavetaking (+ ironic reluctance)” like she’s not managing to settle a score with her debt to Dylan’—and it occurred to me that mine was the very sort of response an ingenue’s caution, or a tease’s spite, was tuned to extract. It’s acidulous like an ingenue should never be, since it cedes ironic distance . A journalist quotes Moss: ‘Someone will offend me and I’ll just sigh, but then months later I write a horrible song that then goes on the radio – the only reason I started writing songs is because I can’t say anything to people’s face.’ For the debt to Dylan, listen eg to how she enunciates the phrase ‘nihilism’s for boys’ in ‘The Hypnotist’s Son’.
‡ Cf ‘City Song’: ‘And what will you look like when you’re old? / What will you do if I don’t know you?’ Both songs look unnerved to an opaque, ungovernable future. I would say this was a momentarily humbled acknowledgement of the tolls of contingency.
§ I’d prefer that such facts should be accessible typically for what my favourite prophet Geoffrey Hill falls just shy of naming ‘instants of recognition’, whose imminent extinction is compelled by their emerging at all.