Features | Faceshopping


How one walks through the world, the endless small adjustments
of balance, is affected by the shifting weights of beautiful things.
—Elaine Scarry

We were in a car, and the movement may have been particularly fast, or it might not have been, but those motifs remain, as in most memories, separate from finer feelings or the consequence of detail. As is only natural for that kind of brilliant day, we thought of that thing called ‘the beach’ and we were moving with the inevitability of numbers getting crunched. We were like items in a video game, dormant but desperate to be made into a means for progress. It was unclear as to what the weight of that progress might be. There’s a cliché about writers that has come to me from conversations I’ve pieced together over time, that they like to deliberately obfuscate ‘memory’ as if it’s a trickiness only they can understand. Worse still, to evoke the appropriate boredom, or sanctity, of something in the middle like a dream. It was just past midday on a weekend, and it must have been spring in Adelaide, somewhat overcast. I was unwisely wearing the sort of light-coloured top and workpants that precluded any attempt at going near the water.

Someone had ‘plugged in the aux cord’, a simple action that can spell out either ecstasy for those involved or the end of the modern world as we all know it. Sadly for all of us, the Earth kept on turning, leaving us to suffer many a year still of undignified opinions from people we did not like, and who nonetheless received applause for those very same opinions. This one friend riding with us, who I had not known so well before this trip, was talking about this new musician, saying that they, at least, had appreciated Sophie’s work. Saying that the tracks were pushing new ground, that it was exciting to see that ground broken, and the world of electronic music had met this new guard with a sense of enthusiasm, so there we had to sit and grapple with it. A bomb was exploding inside a corner of my mind, which everyone else was protected by from the chill of some psychic barrier, or at the least some polite air conditioning.

‘But it’s pure accelerationism,’ said another person, or I think that’s what they said. I was somehow not asleep. ‘All of that new stuff—all the PC music is this heavily meta, post-ironic, distant, conceptual kind of thing. Don’t you think?’

I, personally, did not ‘think’—having one thought is not exactly thinking—but now that I ‘think’ about it could maybe recall a time where that had been useful. Following the incompleteness of the statement there were ellipses, and a strange though not necessarily unwelcome silence followed, but from then on out, everything is over. All of a sudden the following topic was blown from the top of my head, and my memory leaps forward like a cinematic cut, bringing a professional single woman from Tennessee into her strange and unsatisfying figure. I could not remain present or speak of presence: tell you anything about the rain or inconsistency of it, the clouds rolling in, if they were profoundly white or blue, cirrostratus or the kind that might respond to prayers for rain, the standards of technology in this specific Uber, any possibility of connection, massed like great intense sparks in the mid of a power outage. Now all that is important or memorable following the ongoing lisp of techno is the braying of the engine, floating past a border of the woods, with the pines sheltered behind iron fences once gently linked by roughened hands, the fierceness of the petroleum smells and the exhaust from the road, being interrupted—beautifully—by the fresh air, low pollen, cutting through the typicality of roadside fumes and exposing the old.

When I recall those initial encounters with Sophie’s music, I equally recall my trepidation. Like the nameless commentator, I was suspicious that the adolescent, hypercolour palette of Sophie’s output was insincere at best, or cynical at first. On either side of this possibility was the risk of embarrassing oneself with a too quickly made assessment. It’s not uncommon to have this experience with art, music, et cetera. I’d instinctively find myself defensive about the ideas presented, only to realise with time that I was seeing inside the future, the clichéd fear of the unknown—and like a harsh studio light on the face—recoiled. It’s almost like my body just wasn’t quite ‘ready’. I had to let myself hate it before I could grow to love it, had to feel inadequate in my tastes before giving myself permission to embrace what I had previously understood as ironic. Growers, not show-ers, are more indicative of how our tastes can come to define the self, and pop music can therefore pose the most sublime challenge to the constitution.

Vocalists employed by Sophie to complete the tracks (Cecile Believe, Hayden Dunham) were pitched to such a high level they sounded childish, with that eerie addendum of an enunciation that is not quite a child’s, the synecdochical knowledge entrusted to the making of a voice. As in every good pop song, that affiliation to a juvenile state is a potion, two parts desperation, one part euphoria, three parts utter narcissism, with the ultimate aim of this deranged solution to recover the senselessness of not being an adult, where feelings would not be compartmentalised by any measure of responsibility. Which is to say, the state in which one can indulge main-character syndrome at its most unnerving—possibly becoming the gif of the orangutan riding a bus with headphones on, gazing out the window? This is ‘pop music’, not ‘popular music’—a kind of allegretto that relies on being at the total epicentre of a created psychic universe, for the acceptable period that is two minutes. It is not just euphoria but a specificity that lies at the heart of euphoria, exposing its central conceit. Then, as quickly as it can begin, it’s all over, shocking us back into the cruelty of meaninglessness. Sounds ricocheted, what could otherwise be identified as string instruments cried—or if you like, sneezed. Other people have also employed these descriptions. Sasha Geffen (in Artforum), chose ‘overinflated rubber ball suddenly punctured; a metal pipe thwacking against a rusty grate; bubbles popping in a vat of viscous liquid’. I thought that maybe this was just a reactionary kind of music, some might use or over-use ‘accelerationist’, designed to be void of politics, leaning so far into the gloss and corporatism and hyper-consumption through appropriation that it sidled too neatly alongside the thing it had meant to critique, ‘society’—which I have recently discovered we live within—ultimately, a bad or soon to be abandoned idea. Later I saw others express similar views only to be torn down for daring to propose the sentiment. It’s a jungle out there, on the internet! You can mock the instinct, but behind any paroxysm of immediate pleasure there is always that danger. Sophie was not just a resolute pop star hosting a 2-minute pitstop for those naysayers of the mundane; she built them a whole new world, casting herself as the lead, the writer, and in fact the ‘producer’ within the detritus of a post-y2k sensibility.
Upon her death in January 2021, I began to cast my mind back to all the times I’d heard her music. Many took place under moonlight, the one supreme unifying variable. It is amid the truest of these hours that the chill of reality is often granted the licence to bend, or revolutionise, or break, to finally suit those of us losers who may be conditioned outside of it and therefore ontologically imprisoned, gifting them their halfway home. Like opening a long-discarded book, uneasily confronted with the shade of the younger self who had read it, the feeling was equidistant between surprise and recognition. Was she the colour that stayed perfect on a continuum through every scene? Actually I could think up specific images, whether it was dancing to the song ‘immaterial’ in a little building in Newcastle, as cheap lights spluttered and manoeuvred across the room and partygoers revelled in the frenzy of the song, or whether it tingled through the dark to alight upon receptive attendees during another DJ set in a different city, hosted by another friend, where people slowed down upon hearing (then new) ‘It’s OK to Cry’, another song that veered so hard into sincerity and confessionalism that it became something like a charade. It is of course the most common entreaty of humour—attached to the edges of any kind of earnestness, often overflowing—that it holds the power to unseat or embarrass the person experiencing it, with the resulting joy being perhaps the most vulnerable of emotions. No-one can quite help it. Music designed to imitate the most synthetic, ‘artificial’ noises could evoke such an extreme, pure emotional response from people, the kind that is in thrall to those sharpened feelings of a pubescent, as if emotion is really that simple or discernible, but therein lies the power. Did it matter if the emotion expressed was entirely performed, a true fake, and who gets to draw those lines?

It seemed that the point was something else, that a performance can open the floodgates for something so marvellously ‘real’ that those questions matter much less, where something powerful and formless can emerge before withdrawing again, a pseudo-religious pop fervour. It was form that was the question as much as content, as Susan Sontag had explained to me from beyond the grave in her essay ‘On Style’, saying that this little problem was recurring through history, that ‘the notion of “having a style” is one of the solutions that has arisen, intermittently since the Renaissance, to the crises that have threatened old ideas of truth, of moral rectitude, and also of naturalness’. It seemed that the truth came in the kind of information within the artifactual, f
rom clear decisions being made. It’s the lightbulb moment that does the trick, allowing an entryway toward a knowledge of what is great in ordinary people; not unlike that shiny Oscar Wilde quote that pops into my mind, unbidden, whenever I dare to probe that territory some may call identity: Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.

***

At the nexus of my childhood years, just before the heavy burdens of \’socialisation’/ were beginning to make themselves known, I had taken it upon myself, created a personal tradition which I could return to at any time to find equanimity—that being the watching of Thumbelina. The purpose of the Disney model requires you to do just one thing, which is to press play. From there on out the product can provide a few reliable effects: an all-encompassing, two-dimensional emotional dialectic that shields you from the soporifics of the new world and breeds an aesthetic intolerance. She is an animated woman on a mission, what some might call relatable. Nothing bad that happens can ever remain unresolved in the swamp of narrative, or so the movie (and others) gingerly promised. This phenom was shared with my childhood best friend, a long-haired girl with apparently untapped reservoirs of energy (and who would almost certainly be diagnosed with ADHD if raised in a time like ours, where [millennial] parents are apparently more likely to watch cartoons than children), a girl who was often joining me in these repeat viewings, and agreed that any opportunity to rewatch was good news. Prior to my addiction to quick turnaround social media apps and shit-talking, we were able to milk so much meaning out of that one film that I kept myself satisfied for years. In retrospect, however, I’ve discovered that it was not the uncut gem I’d made it out to be, it could actually be disputed that the movie is horrifically bad, some would argue that nothing left on this gay earth could possibly extenuate Thumbelina from being sold off as shares and never looked at again. A look at Rotten Tomatoes would reveal an ungenerous score of 3.3 per cent—and unlike some kind of modern equivalent—Frozen, maybe—the animation was, upon release, widely panned.

Still, whatever faults it may have had, it’s superficiality or lo fidelity, just weren’t important in the mind of this reprieved juvenile. Not surprising given I was five. There were no inner critics, ready to stand overhead and serve out ultimatums. There was no metacritic as far as I was aware. I had a small list of conditions that needed to be met and this satisfied the brief. Whatever conflicts experienced by this tiny and illegal woman throughout the film are tied up neatly at its closure, confirmation is delivered, and I would always feel a surge of euphoria or validation upon seeing her become the girl with the most cake.

These anecdotes about stereotypical girly interests are common among a few demographics particularly, whether you’re a nonbinary person or trans woman or high-maintenance bottom or simply all of the above. Given we are living in revolutionary times, one can potentially satisfy each. In TV slots dedicated to understanding the ‘new’ trans phenomenon, it’s common to see young women, transformed by HRT and years of sanguine preparation, offering these lines freely, and sometimes not so much. Anyone could become over-anxious just imagining the mental hula hoops done to land upon the most palatable angle, the public relations manager within slamming his ruler down on the table and screaming. How does one explain to middle Australia that some boys, or so they exist then, decide to give up the most coveted social position of all and start willing their parents for hormone replacement therapy and a boob job? It’s a conservative’s wet dream, or nightmare, I can’t quite tell which. You start at the beginning of your life and work towards something forced, conclusive, irrespective of chance, never daring to appear nonlinear, identifying the path of least resistance so that it might be travelled down cautiously, hoping that acceptance can be found in the form of a TV package that has been scripted, crossed out, rewritten and performed to an imaginary audience. Others, too, feel alienated by this blunt and unsophisticated attempt at commonality. The sad quest for acceptance may just prohibit any kind of difference. All that work to escape a binary, all that pressure forging a glamorous battering ram only to be rudely confronted by freaks, deadbeats and haters waiting on the other end, a paradox smartly articulated by Alex Gallagher in The Guardian. Not everyone knows, that is to say, we actually all aren’t collectively expressing our desire for genital surgery from infancy, as gorg as that would sound, much as my pithy boob-job comment suggests, as much as right-wingers at The Australian would like to believe. But there’s an affinity to the idea of ‘girlhood’ preserved therein that is continually overshadowed by the subliminal hyper-masculinity of American (and therefore Australian) cultural power, as overreaching as it always impossibly is, and these memories recall a passage from exquisite Mariposa—the novel by Fiona Alison Duncan—reminding us:

What I am that might come across as girly—being gentle, dressing in ruffles with exposed lace lingerie, luxuriating in pastel, giggles, grooming, and gossip—is actually rooted in great wisdom. It comes from a recognition that the power games that pass for intellect, strength, and import in this world are rote, wasteful and are ovarian in their chase. Lonely, oppressive. Seriousness. No thanks. Life is short!

There could be a language for that outside of a shallow understanding of ‘weaponised femininity’, a technique practiced by some and prized by others. ‘If we don’t invent a language’, wrote French feminist Luce Irigaray (in her 1980 essay ‘When Our Lips Speak Together’), ‘its gestures will be too few to accompany our story. When we become tired of the same ones, we’ll keep our desires secret, unrealised. Asleep again, dissatisfied, we will be turned over to the words of men—who have claimed to “know” for a long time.’ Nonetheless, that language exists elsewhere, while news segments about transition remain awash with voyeuristic and obviously scripted interviews of young trans girls and their parents, trundling along towards the usual litany of fantasies, checkpoints, disadvantages, ‘hard conversations’, then compromises. The noticeable touch of a producer is invariably, and insensibly, felt. Young Sally (formerly George) is seen cartwheeling across some manicured hedges before the camera pans over to her white mother whooping, screaming, twirling and clapping. Perhaps she is wearing Ralph Lauren, or Stella McCartney, for Target. In a more generous world, perhaps, Nicolas Ghesquière for Balenciaga—I guess one can only dream. She is giving ‘can I speak to the manager’ and sometimes giving ‘I’d personally like a bigger pay packet’. Sometimes, she is simply giving everything that must be given. Sally loved playing with Barbies even before they could talk, the parents will say, when finally the lens turns toward their Cronenbergian faces, skin becoming crepe-like, and there was nothing we could do to stop them. We then cut to an interview with a concerned Catholic doctor, whose name happens to be Andrew.

Ultimately, gender comes into fruition through comparison and communion, like in the arguments posed in Difference and Repetition by Deleuze and Guattari, who told us that something is only as real as its opposite marks it, allowing similarities and differences alike to become clearer, more dramatic—the authors using the example of a joshua tree, unseen in the deep night, becoming suddenly quite physical in its visibility as the lightning illuminates the sky behind it—sounding not unlike … a gender reveal party. These ideas interest me as I get older, as I realise each gender, each age we arrive at, each year we move through, each person we meet, contains a singularly distinct voice and knowledge that is personally unique and valuable in terms of what it can offer the world in that moment in time, even if that knowledge is not immediately accessible. What we know as normal is only maintained as such by comparison and negation. As much as the hyper-neoliberal individualism of mainstream gender politics might ignore and detest, I was not cut dryly from the quilt of one mythology. It was other people who turned the key, undid the lock, showed me the way to glittering new worlds and unveiled them without realising. A friend described my ‘process’ and ‘style’ (and by that token my existence) as a kind of continual coming together, like a bowerbird does, making myself up with whatever was lying around: a collection of all the people I’d loved in one convenient place, as much as it was a process of elimination. We now understand that identity as the infinite category is a scam, which a certain wannabe president had shown us in 2016, thus sentencing us all to scepticism and irony-poisoning for years after, and know from Plato that at any time we’re choosing the least painful of any given options to continue moving through a world that is less ideal, but what I do know based on my own compass is that being trans or gender nonconforming is best seen alongside the kind of life changes any other person goes through, albeit sometimes more dramatic, more accelerated than any of its counterparts. That’s what personhood is—the difference being that some of us are more honest about the realities, or costs, of decreation.
It was in my final year of high school that I became close with Cordelia, a girl who grew up in the enclaves of the Australian countryside, much like I had. She grew up surrounded by boisterous brothers and the cousins of countryside workhouses and the formatting known intimately to blue collar men, their self-worth tied with the kind of labour they performed—from which they derived their value, sometimes even their exacting personalities—much like I had, and as a result she carried herself with the confidence of any of our suburban male peers, like a glitch in the patriarchal fabric. This peculiar sensibility wasn’t always immediately obvious, and she may not have even been necessarily aware of its craft. Imagine in place of this anecdote a singular figure. A long-haired girl, big glassy eyes, freckled, soft and unlikely features, brunette still, Uma Thurman–style physiognomy in the shape of a teen, who despite all appearances was quite happy to occasionally break into abandoned properties, skip class, and sneak off from school to smoke weed. There you would find the girl. Once, years later, she mentioned that she would often do so ‘underneath the school bridge’, though where this was I could not be quite certain.

These early meetings with my friend remind me of the depictions of Tonya Harding by Margot Robbie in I, Tonya, a stunning performance that captured the redneck glam star in all of her contradictions, the hand-made sequinned uniforms, those dripping touches of mascara frequently painted to their limits, untamed hair, unclipped vocabulary, obviating personas, and generally hard as nails attitude that often stems from an upbringing in the country, what some call nouveau riche, and what I offhandedly refer to as the calling card of petite proletarian camp. I am obsessed with these women, though it took me thirty years to put into words why that was the case. All of these elements culminate into something truly vivid, uncomfortably so, something not too far from being hyperreal.

Those who adopt this stance know that it is from contact with their intuition that they can make things work, bringing their entire body and voice into decision-making processes, never expecting that making things work will end in them being happier or necessarily successful in their endeavours. If things don’t turn out right, at least they know this decision is one made from a place of true autonomy. Despite continued efforts to appeal to her superiors, to the public, and to judges, to turn herself into them, to realise the ideals they’ve created and find acceptance, in essence, Tonya consistently falls short—the movie showing her forays into femininity to be too anarchic, too forced, too dishevelled, too connected to the trappings of her class background to essentially meet the standards of affability and reasonable gait that respectable society demands of her. The whole point was that this goal was never possible and purposefully untouchable but had to be kept in place for the self-preservation and self-satisfaction of the powerful. An unlikely but sincerely welcome narrative!

The disregard of the ‘inauthentically feminine’ has always appealed to me, and you might, by now, be able to understand why. It also makes sense to me that Margot Robbie is now starring in the Barbie movie, suggesting that maybe she knows something that we don’t. While I love the fantasy of high glamour and motioning toward a kind of once in a lifetime exclusivity, there is something more comforting, more real to me about the way feminine expressions in a common form break, betraying themself, but attempting to stay on course still, disregarding the contours of ‘perfection’ for something more interesting—how something so elaborate can always be broken down by weather—and these categorisations, or accusations, are routinely thrown against working class women and other marginalised women. Luxury would have us believe only certain things can be beautiful in their cleanliness, but the knowledge that symmetrical glamour could emerge from the very earth or be made by human hands, to be eventually known by all without even a profit motive, is far more exciting, or dare I say, liberatory. It’s also the generic script for ostracising gender nonconforming people, who break every rule in the book by refusing the forms of gendered performance altogether, switching between the two in an unexpected—or unreliable—fashion.

At its core, this is a sort of troubling story about adherence, or lack of it. The adult world is not unconditional, like the ties between mother and child, and requires necessary contracts, what the ideal pop songs guarantee escape from—the kind that Sophie understood so well. It’s all a farce, obviously, because there is no one way, no real way, to do gender properly. Those of us heathens will always be heathens, and the nightmare of it all is that sometimes cash doesn’t even change things … as per the cultural panic around cashed up bogans and sex workers on safari. There is an entire class of people who define their entire self-worth on the basis of others’ lack, on a selective deletion of others’ worth, seeing us grapple below them, continually fucking it up on the way (as if you needed another bad joke about the art world). There is a criticism by gender critical feminists that trans people operate on the basis of patriarchal stereotypes and nothing else, which becomes laughable the more you think about it, as if the playground ‘you can’t sit with us’ logic of the sandbox had now been intellectualised and made into a stratagem in favour of ‘protecting’ some precious position, as if that hadn’t been the carrion call of self-important women targeting other women since … forever. As if it wasn’t transparent. Jacqueline Rose perfectly writes (in ‘Who Do You Think You Are’, in the London Review of Books) that ‘we are all made up of endlessly permuting bits and pieces which sometimes do, mostly do not, align with each other. We are all always adjusting, manipulating, perfecting, sometimes damaging (sometimes perfecting and damaging) ourselves’. What I think she is saying is that no-one is exempt from the determination of patriarchy, or somehow above it. Certainly no-one has lived without damaging themselves or buying into uneasy ideals. All the models have already been caricatured, the spinning tops of decision becoming so oblique in their movement that to claim any certainty of their quickness is startling, bizarre, and attempts to prove otherwise are usually done at the expense of the other.

All of these personality traits of course are read and received by a dominant culture as masculine or feminine, or more tellingly, as ‘insufficiently’ masculine or feminine, and more importantly these readings are inextricable from class, you know—that thing that people either don’t talk about or pretend they know how to talk about—but as Oliver Reeson said in his 2019 Melbourne Writers Festival lecture, ‘To call these qualities masculine is just to give them a word. We could call them anything … There is no absolute truth to these qualities as masculine or feminine, they are just ideas that have been repeated.’

***

Listen to the song ‘Faceshopping’ by Sophie and follow your nose to the logical conclusion of that experience, which is reading every think piece possibly written—and there are probably a thousand—devoted to deconstructing it. Lauren O’Neill describes it as ‘a message about not being ashamed of the artificial, and which announces in filthy, synthy style that what appears as fake can be just as authentic as what we view as real: it’s simply about adjusting your own stuck-in-the-past perception’. Of the song, Sophie herself was quoted as saying ‘It’s about the emphasised idea that if you’re showing more face, you’re somehow being more real,’ she says, recalling her long-lived anonymity in a hyper-exposed industry. ‘But of course, there is a flip side to that, where you have false identities or different projections of yourself that you’re able to cultivate through your image.

The contradictions inherent in that, and of course the idea of plastic surgery and prosthetics, is where that point of what’s real and what’s ungenuine falls, and I think there is a lot of confusion at the moment around that, particularly in music culture.’ In a recent watching of The Goop Lab, I observe as one employee details the appeal of a nonsurgical face-lift, essentially a kind of ‘natural’ skincare that functions as surgery without the artificiality of the Kardashian favourite juvederm. In this instance, I thought that the use of the word natural was doing some heavy lifting. You can hear echoes of this vibrato in the carrion cry of TERF arguments—that trans women are not ‘biological’ or natural women, that femaleness is innate to the body one is born in, determined by certain inarguable characteristics, that those who transition are intent on invading women’s spaces for nefarious reasons. These are by now so boring to contend with. It’s similarly coded into the essentialist distrust of female sportspeople, largely black women. It only makes sense to observe the cross-over. That which we identify as highbrow is more often than not devoid of actual value. An academic paper that employs difficult language and over-complicated metaphors might be masking nothing at all. Something that uses simple language to realise its ends might be entirely original and allow for a tremendous scope of feeling and thinking precisely because of its malleability. Of course I am less interested in proving these questions as time goes by. I’m interested in creating a working relationship with the asking.

 

 

Jonno Revanche

Jonno Revanche is a writer/poet and multidisciplinary artist interested in isolation, marginal and forgotten subcultures and the queer art of longing.

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