“Tonight” is a place of future. And apparently there isn’t one”
Hildegard Knef once laconically said: “We’re hardly prepared for the first half of our lives. Not prepared for our second. And for death – not at all. So what are we prepared for?”
If there’s no way to rehearse life, hardly a way to prepare yourself for it, at least there must be a way to rehearse emotion? How do you learn what a feeling means? Through pop songs, one could argue.
The Australian performance artist Melanie Jame Wolf certainly would. For many of us, pop not only served as a soundtrack to growing up and coming of age, but as a place where love and heartbreak, loss and longing are tied together into a dictionary of emotions that we return to whenever we are struck by the registers of teenage kicks. With pop, we feel before we know what we feel and how to articulate our tribulations. The pop songs of our youth imprint in our DNA and create a shared space inhabited by entire generations.
In her performance piece “TONIGHT”, which is part of an ongoing series of performance works and video installations called “Oh Yeah Tonight” – three of the most frequently used lyrics in pop songs – Wolf investigates the role of what she poignantly calls “the archive of pop within us”. On the hottest nights of this summer so far (it is the 30th of June when the last of four stagings of “TONIGHT” takes place), sweat dripping from the crumbling plaster of the beautiful, historic Sophiensäle, Wolf and her collaborators Sheena McGrandles and Rodrigo Garcia Alves use seventy minutes for celebrating their love for pop as much as stripping pop of its myth-making machinery. Where the smoke and the mirrors become devices that start pointing towards themselves until they invert their function. Isn’t pop after all the tightrope act between trickery, authenticity and innocence?
One by one, to the fluttering rhythm of jazzy HiHats, the trio enters a stage of pale rose vinyl. Grimacing, dancing, getting the audience in fits of laughter with slapstick performance styles of the so-called Golden Twenties. These are the “lounge guys”, as Wolf will later explain in our interview. “Even if there’s only one person in the audience”, she says, “Lounge Guy is seeing a packed Caesar’s Palace”. This is the starting point to a “transhistorical” and critical guide to the variety of devices and affects of entertainment: a laser light dancing on its own. Neon yellow see-through mirrors with which the performers flirt, which they sensually caress until they start making out with their own reflection (or are they just rehearsing their first kiss?). A lengthy spoken word – Wolf’s voice manipulated with her trusted voice box into something male, something female, something non-binary sounding – about how “a lover, an entertainer and a revolution walk into a bar” – is this a joke? “Oh Yeah”. The audience has certainly stopped laughing. An eerie melancholy is holding sway. We’re entering the climax of the piece, foreshadowed by the familiar intro of Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight”. Though familiar it shouldn’t be, the song is slowed down beyond recognition. And for the next thirty minutes this 80’s cheese bomb will encase a nerve-splitting, solemn choreography of identity loss and resurrection, of triumph and yes: of survival. Up until Wolf steps in front of the microphone and into a narrow spotlight like a jaded Marianne Faithfull, and sings a cover of The Stooges’ “Real Cool Time”. Twisting all the possible meaning and yearnings of these last words, the kairos that gave the show its title and is uttered for the very first time in all clarity, on the tip of her tongue: “We could have a real cool time – tonight”.
Albeit in total exhaustion, not only due to having performed four nights in a row in the blazing heat, but Wolf on top being seven-months pregnant, she kindly agreed to sitting down with me after the show for a chat about some of the ideas the led to the performance, her dedication to pop, its politicized role these days, and something she coined “Hilary-Clinton-Girlboss-Pantsuit-Pop”.
Sonja Ella Matuszcyk: Melanie Jame, this was the last day of the performance. Congratulations! How did it go?
MELANIE JAME WOLF: I think it went great. You do the premiere and you have the biggest and warmest audience for the premiere. But also then the second night, you really know what the show is – with an audience. It’s so strange when you’re in a rehearsal room for eight weeks and suddenly you come in and you got all this space, and the light and the sound elevate everything and you start to understand the sense of magnitude.
Would you not be quite used to that by now, after more than ten years of experience?
I am very used to it. But it’s always a pleasure. And with this work in particular it was a pleasure, because it was the biggest stage work I’ve done.
“TONIGHT” is part of a series …
An unfinished series.
… called “Oh Yeah Tonight”. How do these pieces correlate?
I was commissioned to make a video installation for a biennial called “The National” in Australia which just closed. And I did an activation of that work with the same technology you saw me using tonight, the same voice box. And that was called “Oh Yeah Tonight”. So these works really quite literally speak to each other. They’re cousins. Like eyebrows. [laughs] They’re not identical twins.
Is that why the thick eyebrows of electrical tape? You seem to have developed a fondness of those, not only in tonight’s performance.
Yeah, why do I like them? I think they’re a little bit uncanny. They destabilize gender representation in a way. They’re pantomime, but not. I’m really interested in this old school, theatrical apparatus. Wind machine, fog machine, exaggerated costumes. Almost pantomime aspects. And how to form them into a contemporary aesthetic.
Yeah, parts of your performance subtly evoked a Kate Bush interpretation of pantomime to me. What surprised me, however, was the type of pantomime performed in the first act. It’s a nod to almost pre-pop-historic times, very Vaudevillian…
Vaudeville is something that is really interesting me at the moment. I’m just in the process of working on a new project, about impersonators. And the way I was thinking about impersonation and impersonators links to the resurgence of where we are in terms of populism, this very teetering on 1929-vibe we’re in right now. I feel like there is a return to impersonation. Like Alec Baldwin doing Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live, this kind of thing. And feeling like impersonation is one of these more old school, Vaudevillian, in some ways working class entertainment modes. Of course highly sophisticated in technique. But these modes seem to be returning in times of fierce populism and nationalism. These inter-World War performance devices and tropes in entertainment.
In this first section of TONIGHT, you see a persona that we’re inhabiting in our own ways. A singular persona called “Lounge Guy”.
“Lounge Guy” is just a dense knot of all cis-white male entertainers. He’s the ghost of all of them. When we were researching, Sheena found this amazing footage of this lounge singer on a cruise ship and you see him giving it everything, and I mean everything. And the camera slowly zooms out and you realize he’s singing to an audience of like three elderly people. That’s it. It’s the idea of this kind of delusion. But this delusion as engine, as necessary engine of performance. You have to see and build things that aren’t ‘there’. Even if there’s only one person in the actual audience, Lounge Guy is seeing a packed Caesar’s Palace. And that was what we worked with, this kind of hyper embodiment and conjuring.
So an impersonation of a deluded entertainer?
Yeah, He is a composite impersonation, of an idea, I guess. And it’s a heavily gendered idea. I really like this theory that comes from Renate Lorenz. They talk about drag, but not as impersonation necessarily, but as assemblage. So as a kind of layering of transhistorical elements and references to create composites. And to create a composite that works with both earnestness and with humor. And I think to me, if I’m thinking about gender impersonation and engaging with that history and subject matter, it necessarily re-binarises gender in a way that I’m just not interested in engaging with. It’s like the term “cross-dressing”. It implies that there’s only a binary to inhabit one way or the other, to cross like a river. But I think with Lounge Guy we had all the different references. It’s a transhistorical idea. It’s this kind of séance act, a dance with ghosts. But it’s a multiplicitous ghost. And it’s a complication of the fact that they embody and present and perform a very specific kind of masculinity, which is so problematic and damaging. But at the same time as they are absolutely fucking masterful.
For me, it’s interesting going back to this Vaudeville idea: making performance about performance. Shows about shows. To unpack the devices. In terms of things that are understood as entertainment as opposed to these things and how they are understood within the European tradition of contemporary performance, which is a very impermeable, gate-kept, white, colonial thing. And also because of my background coming into performance basically via stripping and then nearly a decade later making a show about stripping…
You’re talking about 2015’s performance piece “Mira Fuchs”.
… that allowed me through this gate.
What do you mean by that?
Well, people from all kinds of different identities and intersections that are understood to varying degrees and in different and specific ways as marginalized, are often only allowed initial entry into these certain spheres of institutionalised cultural production when they talk about and tell their stories in their work of what is understood by the majority white bourgeois audience as “trauma”. Like, they can only understand the idea of me coming from a working class background as having been a trauma, or of my having stripped as being a trauma, or whatever. When yes, maybe in some ways it was but it also most definitely was not. The trauma reading, and trauma story ‘market’ maintains the power differential in which one is always ‘marginal’ to a ‘center’ even when you’ve been permitted through one or more of the well kept gates; and so ironically that center reproduces the really painful trauma of disenfranchisement and erasure and ‘being done a favour’ that it purports to want to dissolve. It’s tricky politically and personally to navigate and think through and work within once the representational or ‘trauma’ pieces are in your bio and you actually wanna talk about something else.
I started my performance career, because I really, really didn’t want to do a normal job. Performing is something I’ve always been interested in and it is incredibly specialized and skillful. And now with TONIGHT it’s been great to be able to expand my research which was always about performance as labour and this idea of entertainment as performance as labour. Things like lounge guys. Stadium rock dudes. And cruise ship entertainers.
We just did four nights and we were talking last night about people doing musical theatre. And how they do the same show six, seven shows in a week. For six months.
It’s an admirable working ethic. But there’s always an incredible sadness and tragedy to these kinds of guys, I find. Especially to the ones that have this unwavering belief in a breakthrough that just never comes.
Absolutely. The whole contract of entertainment and performance is strange and sad. It’s this weird contract of co-dependence with audience for very different reasons. It’s sad, but it’s also wonderful. It’s sad, but it’s incredibly skillful. Despite what certain visual art orthodoxies tell us, performance isn’t simply getting up and doing things in front of people with ironic detachment. Coming from a theatrical background, I’m invested in dramaturgy, in affect and feeling. That said, I’m also very interested in form and materials, in the performing image.
To choreograph a dramaturgical arc for a 30-minute, droned out, eerie version of “In The Air Tonight” must have been quite a challenge.
33.33 minutes, precisely. When Iwas making the track together with (sound designer) Mieko Suzuki, we ended up doing a little edit and this edit stretched it to 33.33. And we were like: “No matter what we do now, it has to remain at this time.” Because of this pop thing, the 3 minute pop song, the 33 and a 3rd vinyl LP rotation. That’s a particular magic. Of course that 3 minute thing is built around the radio industry to begin with. It’s like documentaries for TV were/are 55 minutes long, because of advertising. But we understand these lengths of time. And old school pop music is so amazing in what it’s able to compact into that time. It took us a long time to understand how to inhabit “In the Air Tonight” after being stretched out to half an hour. We all knew the song, but working with it, in this very slowed down, droney way, without the landmarks. Yeah, it was really interesting and a challenge.
Besides Phil Collins – who will haunt my nightmares forever now – and a Stooges cover at the very end, I spotted hardly any “obvious” pop references in a performance piece that is ultimately about pop.
Because I didn’t want to make a cabaret of any kind, you know, or a review. Also I wanted to save the word “tonight” in clarity to the very end of the piece. I was attempting to strip away the manipulative pop machinery through the lyrics etc., and just see what was left as the apparatus to produce the affects and feelings. So things like nostalgia as a material. I think it’s this thing of being interested in how pop culture imprints in your body. How it imprints in your memory. It’s like the last show I did, “Highness”, about the queen archetype, and people kept asking: Was it this reference? Was it that reference? And I’d be like: I’m not talking about these references, because we all see a different thing. And I am trying to find out insteadabout the unique archive of pop within each of us. And it’s very potent and very strong and often… a little bit incorrect in what it remembers. [laughs]
Which is why you changed Iggy Pop’s lyric “we will have a real good time” into “we could”?
The work is all about futurity and possibility. I can’t be Iggy saying “we will”. I’ve gotta be me saying “we could”. Because the whole thing is about the speculative aspect of this pop poetic.
Since we’re talking about lyrics, and “Oh”, “Yeah” and “Tonight” being three of the most sung words in the history of pop, I did a little ‘research’ on how current pop stars are using “tonight”. I looked into Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish as half random picks. And I’ve come to the conclusion: the kairos “tonight”, this yearned for places, seems to have vanished in the pop discourse. Those singers are using “tonight”, if at all, almost antithetically to how you’re celebrating the “tonight”-topos: as a place to be alone, a place to retreat, almost a place without hope. How would you interpret this current shift in pop songs?
Girlboss pop. And I say that with girlboss as a densely problematic concept, for my kind of feminism at least. It’s the alienated neoliberal subject pop.
Secretly, really, for me the “Tonight” song that I love the most is another Iggy song. It’s on “Lust For Life” with David Bowie singing the backup. And it’s a beautiful song, but it’s also aware of the irony of “tonight” as a pop lyric. It kind of foreshadows the whole thing. “Everyone will be alright tonight”. And that for me is my favourite kind of source. I think it’s very interesting in contrasting terms of these current pop performers and that what they’re doing with the lyrics is a different thing. But it’s just not as interesting to me.
Because it’s not about anything sustainable. Not that the Tonight-place that I’m talking about is sustainable either. It’s a place of fantasy and longing. But yeah, I guess it’s pantsuit pop. Hilary-Clinton-girlboss-pantsuit-pop. [laughs] I like epic qualities. “Total eclipse of the heart”: Forever’s gonna start tonight. Epic melodrama and hyperbole. It’s articulating unwieldy desire rather than containing desire in order to be an efficient working subject.
I guess we’re also looking at a generation that is tired of promises, because we know how futile they are.
Yeah, “tonight” is a place of future. And apparently there isn’t one. For me, it’s also that pop itself is so sophisticated and fascinating, but at the same time meaning nothing at all. And being understood and dismissed as something vacuous and disposable. But actually being of incredible importance to so many people. And again, I think this comes back to the idea of performance as labour: it’s this very specialized skill set and set of techniques. And of course they are about manipulation of audience. But they’re also very beautiful and anchoring for people.
I wonder whether you think that pop as a very specific type of myth maker is a thing of the past?
Probably. I do feel like when I’m talking about pop, I do talk about particular epochs of pop. And they do have different meanings and different kinds of effects on a generation. And that’s also industry based and media based. In how things are transmitted and disseminated and what they’re ultimately for.
For someone like you who grew up a pop fan in a fairly remote place like Tasmania, I could imagine that such a setting infuses pop with an even bigger sense of longing.
I was a kid in MTV times. So I wasn’t an internet kid. There was this MTV show called “Rage”, which played music videos all Friday and Saturday night. And I would tape them and my brother and I, we would watch them over and over again. I grew up in a very musical household. My dad was in bands and ended up having a record store when I was a teen and we listened to lots of different music and I always had access to a very broad history of music. So I learned from my dad, really, this thing of being desperately invested in music and allowing myself to be completely carried away by the myths and the mythologies of pop music. And it definitely was the soundtrack to a very rich fantasy life.
Who, then, were the most fantastical pop gods for you when you were young?
David Bowie, I just love him and his insistent shape-shifting. I remember I got a David Bowie calendar one year for Christmas when I was quite young. And I remember opening it up and looking at my mum and going: I just love him. Punkt [original auf Deutsch]. [laughs] Also early 90’s-Madonna. And now it’s Rihanna.
So she’s not a girlboss popstar for you?
No, she’s absolutely not. She’s far more interesting than that. And she’s far less cynical than that. She’s really embodied and sensual and fierce and amazing. I love her. I think she’s fucking brilliant.