Culture Rover

#110 - Cat Power Breakdown

Jessica Hopper's typically thought-provoking comments on the latest wave of publicity concerning Cat Power (ne Chan Marshall) made me remember performances by the singer in the late 1990s.

What I remember most is that her performances were so conceptually brilliant. Marshall would mutter onstage, abandon songs unfinished, offer to give everyone their money back, run out the door past the crowd, leave her band stranded onstage. It was concert as mental breakdown. It was at once a rock star tantrum and an anti-rock star confession. It was anxiety-producing, uncomfortable, and cathartic.

Whatever the issue of whether these breakdowns were real or calculated (the old authenticity bugaboo), they were so moving. Because, aesthetically, they projected feelings of self-loathing and self-hatred outward. They were a call for compassion, not just for the Chan Marshall behind the Cat Power, but also for ourselves. They identified and made public very private feelings of unworthiness. And they made those feelings okay. Marshall took on those feelings for those in her audience who wanted to recognize them. She not only made you want to take care of her, but also to take care of yourself.

But at the same time that Marshall's concerts invoked the need to care, they were also an assertion of not caring. Who gives a shit about proper performances!, her actions seemed to communicate. They were so raw and real and unreal and staged all at once. (Authentic? Artificial? Rockist? Popist? Who cares!). In this weird space of violating the rules of performance, Cat Power turned the spotlight back outward on the audience, away from obsession with the performer as celebrity. Or, as Marshall sang a few years ago, "Don't fall in love with the autograph, just fall in love when you sing your song."

This was fearful rock, literally filled with fear. At the same time, it was fearless, daring you to "just fall in love when you sing your song." There was no transcendence, there were no easy answers. A lot of the time, there was barely any music. Instead, there was a kind of self-scrutiny that was so intense it was masked as incompetence.

And the self-scrutiny spread, as if bounced off a mirrorball above the concert floor. One thing Cat Power did in her performances was to deconstruct the rock factory that crushed souls in the feigned gesture of liberating them. A punk move of negation. Were we free? Are we free? Could we get free? You are free?

What started as self-hatred turned into a question about individual freedom, and wound up, oddly, offering a weird kind of solidarity in its profound alienation. When Cat Power stormed off the stage, stumbled through the audience, and disappeared out the door, weren't we all supposed to follow her out the "indie-rock" club and into the starry night?

24 September 2006

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