No One Is Not Selfish: The Music Films of Actually Huizenga

7 June 2018

Can there be sex without pain, sex that is completely virtuous, a sort of ethically responsible and mindful sex in which lovers are on completely equal ground, a sex without hierarchy or power differentials?  This is the question that kink attempts to answer, clumsily but resoundingly in the negative, with whips and chains and fetishes.  That kink exists and persists in thrilling so many should not suggest that kink is necessarily a satisfactory response to this question.  It merely underscores the persistence of doubt as to the compatibility of sex within otherwise lofty goals of inclusion, transparency, and fairness, goals that may be well-intentioned but that have ballooned to become caricatures of themselves, thanks to social media ills like humblebragging and virtue signaling.  What kink often promises is a temporary suspension of hypocrisy – detours through discomfort, pain, and humiliation, before finally arriving at some sort of climax, perhaps an orgasm for the sadist or masochist or both, or perhaps just a bottoming-out at utter abjection.  Kink is uncomfortable if not painful for one or both lovers, but at least it is honest, this reasoning would have us acknowledge.  And if Sade were alive today and judged on the basis of his writings, he’d be pilloried not because he blasphemed, but because he did not represent sex as a democratic act.

The Baroque surfeit in Actually Huizenga’s music films offers eloquent testimony as to the allure of kink, despite or even because of the prevalence of the #MeToo movement and other facets of latter-day enlightenment.   Although fitted in the trappings of kink and fetish and bondage, Huizenga’s art is not just about these things.  She seems to recognize that some viewers will stop there, with the kink, and obsess or delight or fantasize away with the salaciousness of it all.  But there is another path suggested by this seamy mess of image and song and kitsch and humor, and it leads to the true taboo, that there is no sexual satisfaction, nor any satisfaction, for that matter, without a power differential.  There are and will always be dominators and submissives, winners and losers, those who derive pleasure and those who suffer pain, in bed or any other social arrangement.  All honest narratives teach us this, especially the fairy tales we are told as children.  This is why so many of Huizenga’s music films contain the imagery and structure of fairy tales.

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Actually (Ashley) Huizenga is a native of Los Angeles, an artist who makes short and long films, popular music, and most recently through her band Patriarchy, industrial music.  I want to walk through one of Huizenga’s works, “Predator Romantic” (2016), with an eye toward what it has to say about Huizenga’s views on sex and kink and desire.  In no particular sequential or logical order, “Predator Romantic” lays out several topics.  The first setting is the beach, where waves wash over a miniature piano figurine.  An androgynous man with long dark hair and reptilian contact lenses lip-syncs to the camera a line spoken by Arnold Schwarzenegger from the 1987 film Predator: “If it bleeds, we can kill it.”  The music begins, a mid-tempo dance track whose shuffle ostinato recalls the tango.  There are intermittent synthesizer flourishes, a standard drum set with kick and snare, and treated electric guitar.  Huizenga’s overdubbed voice enters, describing a man who enjoys blood and kink in his love-making.  The visual rhythm locks into a groove as new images rise and fall about every two to three seconds.  Some of these images are superimposed, strafed, and magnified on top of others.  Other figures fill the frame and are stationary; these are a sort of background or canvas.  The images themselves are stultifying.  Huizenga is clothed alternately as a shepherdess, a dominatrix in vampire or Viking style, and a sexpot à la Madonna.

All of these visual and audio elements are superimposed in a vertiginous mix of topics like the bacchanalia; the horror film; bondage and discipline subculture; the film Predator; silent-film-era cliché (the bound victim, the genie with Rudolf Valentino-like beauty); and the fairy tale.  And while the music follows a standard verse/chorus alternation and thus adheres to a predictable timing of events, the editing of these visual topics is muddled and quick.  The frequent superimposition of graphics (in late-1990s-style cut-and-paste) means that distinctions between topics are aggressively worn down.

“Predator Romantic” simmers at a fever pitch of smut.  But it is hardly gratuitous.  Defenders of Madonna, like the musicologist Susan McClary, have argued that her sexualized roles are subversive rather than demeaning because they wrested control of the male gaze?  The argument could be rewritten with Huizenga’s work in mind, in such a way that Madonna seems positively patriarchal in comparison.  For Madonna and her progeny, Nicki Minaj, Miley Cyrus, and Cardi B, merely mimic libido and desire, in order to subvert them.  Huizenga on the other hand presents a much more unsettling prospect.  For she is an artist who really does exert total creative control over sound and image, as well as costuming, casting, editing and other less glamourous aspects of video art.  The lyrics to her songs are intimately tied to her script writing.  She places herself in debasing evocations of fetishism, sacrilege, gluttony, and does so while clearly communicating enjoyment and humor, even joy.  The absence of irony in Huizenga’ delight puts her more in line with 1950s bondage starlet Betty Page than Madonna.  And here is the truly subversive element in Huizenga’s fantasy: not that she shows such perverse situations, but that her enjoyment of such situations is so unperverse, so untroubled.

A colleague asked me whether I should spend my time analyzing Huizenga’s work, when there are, according to him, so many more deserving feminist artists to consider.  I responded that it would be greedy to argue that Huizenga’s work is anti-feminist.  For one thing, Huizenga writes, performs, and produces her own work.  Given that so much popular music today is an assembly-line process made by mostly invisible songwriters and producers, an environment in which many female performers are allowed to participate only in order to look good, this is no small feat.  This colleague objected to the explicit sexuality in Huizenga’s work, and feels that feminism is best articulated by avoidance of, rather than catering to, the male gaze.  But here’s the thing: whatever fantasies it might entertain, the male gaze ultimately requires an affective neutrality on the part of the objectified female.  She is there, she shows herself, and though she may mime desire or playact sensuality, in truth, she feels no such things.  The male gaze recalls blank canvased stars like Kim Novak or Grace Kelly, who acted gainfully, yet who left an aching silence between themselves as real subjects and the beautiful apparitions they depicted.

That aching silence is not present in Huizenga’s videos, and it is for this reason that I regard her work as feminist and radical rather than patriarchal and regressive.  While the various situations depicted in “Predator Romantic” and her other music films show Huizenga in states of ambivalence, the music at these various moments of pivoting is consistent and univocal.  And the album’s worth of music that accompanies this film relies on harmonies and melodies and beats that recall Human League or slowed-down, crystallized Kate Bush: her breathy but precise high soprano, undergirded by motoric synth repeated sixteenth-notes.  It’s not a novel sound – we’ve heard its like in Giorgio Moroder’s collaboration with Donna Summer, “I Feel Love”, as well as recent variations on the theme by The Chromatics and Glass Candy – but it remains a potent method for conveying the opposite of libidinal ambiguity.  Huizenga’s music wants; it wants even through the discomforting action and lurid fake blood and not-so-subtle intimations of rape and torture.  It’s frankly the most unabashed vision of female desire, for itself and without apology, that I think I’ve ever seen, much more fun and relaxed than anything Madonna, the supposed liberator of female desire, ever did.

So we have what is potentially a feminist vision that promises revolution: women needn’t want what they are told they should want; they can want something that fundamentally repudiates quality and nobility and everything else they are supposed to cherish.  And yet, somehow, this message seems to have gotten lost in the mail, partially due to an almost tragic bit of bad timing.  For moral indignation has become the status quo, and social media facilitate virtue signaling, a sort of preemptive moral alibi that precludes doubts as to an individual’s politics or motives.  But in delegitimizing the feminism of Huizenga, we are too narrowly prescribing the boundaries of feminism, what it should be and what it could become.  My most compelling reason to love this stuff is that it makes visible, as visible as possible, anyway, a truer response to the question I posed at the beginning, “Can there be sex without pain?”.  No, Huizenga responds, there cannot, for sex is itself a spell of magic, mysticism, communion, as well as domination and violation, even in the most loving of circumstances.  Keep in mind the name of her current band, Patriarchy, and consider the barely contained violence in its images of kidnappings and public defilements.  Somehow, Huizenga is able to conceal that message in the guise of some infectious pop songs and a great sense of kitsch and levity.

This sounds like a defense, which is not what I wanted to write.  Huizenga does not want to be a martyr or a hero, because as goes a line in her film “Heavenly Sin”, no one is not selfish.