“I’ve learnt how to make that humming sound” – Jenny Hval and music of the body

Before I begin, if you haven’t already listened to Viscera by Jenny Hval, I might spoil some of the impact of it by dissecting it in this post! Listen on Spotify here, and then read the lyrics here.

Jenny Hval may be lacking a significant critical appreciation, but her work presents such a unique perspective that I think she should be considered an important voice in contemporary pop. She’s been ignored I suppose because of her feminism, her nationality (Norwegian is her native language, but her songs are all in English), and the uncompromising and discomforting nature of her music – it’s so challenging to listen to some parts that audiences dismiss her, shrug her off with a nervous laugh, rather than treating her music intellectually. Her unmistakably feminist agenda and graphic lyrical approach underscore a musical aesthetic that is not extreme in the sense of noise or speed, but in space and dynamics.

Hval is a Norwegian singer-songwriter, who has been creating music under the name Rockettothesky since the late 90s, releasing two albums under that moniker. She only recently caught my attention with her latest record, Viscera (2011), released under her real name. Rockettothesky’s To Sing You Apple Trees (2006) was, in Hval’s words, a pop album; it received radio airplay and a grammy nomination in Norway. But thematically, it’s more subversive than this suggests – many of the tracks seem inoffensively pleasant on a cursory listen, until you digest the lyrics, and the “singles” are interspersed with awkward experimental pieces. Hval was dissatisfied by the fame Apple Trees brought her, and followed it up with a more brooding, inaccessible record, Medea (2008). I still haven’t quite fallen in love with this album, but it bridges the pop sensibility of Apple Trees with the ambient soundscapes of Viscera and certainly contains some eerily beautiful moments. On Viscera, Hval’s meditative acoustic guitar patterns, embellished lightly by sparse percussion and electronics, provide a backdrop for her virtuoso, chameleonic vocals.

Taking inspiration from “intellectual” pornographic works such as Story of O  and Story of the Eye, Hval uses sexually explicit, psuedo-pornographically ugly language to explore the body. She presents a powerful force working against the invisibility of female sexuality in patriarchal culture, although arguably her lack of renown goes to prove how deeply-ingrained the problem is.

Femininity is a powerful force on this record, and rarely do artists depict the female body with such potency. Hval plays with the myth of vagina dentata on ‘Blood Flight’ and commands women to masturbate on ‘Portrait of the Young Girl as an Artist’, and parallels her voice and speech to breast milk on ‘Milk of Marrow’. Most striking is Viscera‘s opening line, which I first heard not knowing at all what to expect from Jenny Hval. It blew me away, and I immediately knew I’d end up loving this album; it twists and folds like a story in itself, taking a while to reveal the final word, which you would never have second-guessed, never having heard of her: ‘I arrived in town… with an electric toothbrush… pressed… against my… clitoris…’

This is the most daring, provocative opening line to an album I’ve ever heard; it makes the first line of Arab Strap’s Philiophobia look a bit tame. Throughout the record, Hval has expressed that she wished to avoid the trappings of pornography, and so her depiction of sexuality with no societal or political overtones is purely bodily – crucially, gender is often discarded in the world of Viscera; Hval imagines the possibilities of sex in its purest form. While many feminist authors discuss sex in a similarly explicit and subversive way, (Hval emphasises her influence from the “literary feminist tradition”), an equally powerful feminist voice is surprisingly rare in music; feminism has mostly been represented in a political sense by the punk-inspired bands associated with the riot grrl movement. It’s difficult to remember any other musician tackling sexuality so frankly, particularly any women – the only other musician I can think of who has made music so explicitly about the female body is Björk, who I can imagine being frequently compared to Hval not just because they’re both female Scandinavians, but because the way Hval sings and experiments with instrumental timbres has an adventurousness only really precedented by Björk.

Viscera‘s title applies not just to the focus upon the body and internal organs in the lyrics, but her singing approach, often guttural and powerful but just as often whispered and atonal. It’s a form of singing that avoids intellectual expectations of what music is, aiming for a more primal representation of humanity; at the same time, her singing style doesn’t detract from the ambiguities of her lyrics. Its amorphous form reflects “feminine” writing, as described by feminists such as Hélène Cixous, by whom Hval was heavily influenced; Cixous implored women to write about their experiences, to reclaim language without masculine preconceptions, describing feminine writing as non-linear and vibrant, whereas phallogocentric writing is too linear to capture the imagination. Hval applies these theories of écriture féminine not just to her writing but to her delivery and musical approach – Viscera twists and turns unpredictably, and in terms of instrumentation, Hval’s experimental arrangements are more unstable and exciting than the worn-out, monotonous rock song form. She was influenced by Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, not just in terms of the themes of flux, travel, and metamorphosis, but also, it reminds me of Woolf’s kaleidoscopic writing style.

Hval claims that the lyrics and music of the album were composed by improvisation. I tend to think this is an exaggeration, (‘Blood Flight’ was previously published as a poem, and it’s simply too tautly-constructed to be improvised!), but the idea of this unstable method of composition is a useful parallel to Viscera‘s themes of transition. It extends to the metaphors in the songs, as Hval also focuses strongly on the vocal cords; because of its improvisational quality, the composition of music is reflected in the music itself – the songs are not just about the body but part of the body too. This is reminiscent of the metaphor of the title of To Sing You Apple Trees, explored in ‘On Cherry Tree Song’, where the narrator eats fruit seeds which grow into physical trees/songs, both bodily and artistic: ‘An eyeball [and Hval makes the word sound like “apple”] dangles from a branch, watching, rolling in the breeze’.

You can actually track what happens to the vocal cords in the progression of Viscera. In track 2 (‘Blood Flight’), they are dormant, tentatively preparing: ‘Meanwhile the vocal chords [sic] were listening / for the wind howling, // whispering a familiar language of breath – / secret tales for them to learn’. Later the voice becomes more physical, in track 8 (‘Milk of Marrow’): ‘My voice turned to milk in your mouth / I gave you words: / the milk was from my breast’. The song itself becomes the object of sensuality, art becomes tangible and nourishing. In the final (title) track, the narrator purges herself (after yoga doesn’t work) of her actual internal organs, ending as her vocal cords ‘flowed like sea!weed / out / of / my / mouth’. Here this barrage of viscera is like a wave, which includes the vocal cords (more than just flaps of muscle!); the songs coming naturally like washed-up seaweed. In spite of the gore, it’s a calm end to the record. The final two tracks are in major keys, and feel more relaxed than most of the album, (‘Viscera’ is the most melodic, traditionally folksy song on here), and they at least resolve peacefully, as the acts of self-expression in these final two tracks provide peace. The action of singing is the same as the actual catharsis of spilling out everything inside her – by now, the body and identity have become intertwined. So the record is in itself the viscera of the title, and vice versa. It’s a very dense final image, a powerful and unforgettable way to end a record.

Jenny Hval – Live At The Office from MICnorway on Vimeo – via Drowned in Sound.

Hval has confronted the issues of being a female artist (and therefore subject to objectification devaluing her work) not just in interviews but also in the stark left-turn in To Sing You Apple Trees, the hilariously-titled ‘A Cute Lovesong, Please!’, in which she asks, in a tribal chant: ‘When you think of me do you masturbate? / I want to know that I can make a man ejaculate’. In an interview with The Quietus, she said: ‘A lot of female artists pose like they are saying, “When you think of me, do you masturbate?”, but of course, when I actually sing it, I break the illusion, and people react in a very different way. They become visible. I look back at them. I have to look back.’ It’s unusually brave for a female artist to second-guess her male critics so crudely, but her intentions are more complex than to simply admonish men for objectification – and we must remember the song is sung by a narrator rather than Hval herself. The narrator hopes that people do masturbate over her, as a sort of validation of her sexual identity. But the song is so un-feminine and primal, and vaguely disturbing to listen to, that it’s also a statement against patriarchal ideals of women, a refusal to suppress her individuality just to validate her sexual status – all the while acknowledging that sexual anxieties will exist nonetheless…

This is music created as a reaction against patriarchal pigeonholing of female artists: ‘The media never tires of writing about female artists in the most stereotypical fashion – and we always have to talk about what it’s like to be a female artist. […] a “female” artist is something exclusive and at the same time limiting, which makes female artists seem like they have less personality than male artists. The result is that everybody hates talking about sex and gender, which really is a shame because it is a big part of what we do – the voice, words. But it’s a personal thing, and has to do with personal expression.’

Hval is important because she discusses sexuality while making it difficult to say anything condescending about how “her mind’s in the gutter” – which would lessen the impact of her sentiments. It’s also difficult for critics to respond, as is the fate of most female artists, by objectifying her – which sadly has happened to everyone from Liz Phair to Joanna Newsom, and even the likes of Bikini Kill.

But her view of sexuality is unique and at odds with gender constructions. In her songs, the body itself mutates and is subverted; it’s reminiscent of the films of David Cronenberg. In ‘Cigars’ (from To Sing You Apple Trees) she groans ‘Lately I find your limbs growing out of my body; you call it love Picasso-style / and-I say, “Have you heard about those mice with ears growing out of their backs?”‘, before a keyboard solo springs in to cut out her strained voice, like an interruption. I find the image difficult to interpret, (perhaps something to do with his characteristics physically becoming part of the narrator?), but it fascinates me every time I hear it. She portrays sexuality as simultaneously sensual and grotesque.

Take, for instance, the lyric from ‘Barrie for Billy Mackenzie’ (from To Sing You Apple Trees): ‘I imagine all your hairs are fingers / and it makes me cum it makes images’. The narrator insists ‘I am no dirty hoe’ – sexuality is represented as this mind-openingly amazing, artistic experience, but the narrator is accused of being a ‘dirty hoe’. (These anxieties, in the form of a mutated version of the melody and lyrics, recur in a much darker form later in the album, on ‘Deep’). And contrarily, the narrator of ‘Golden Locks’ is told she isn’t sexually active enough: ‘”You just need to get laid” he says / “Your eyes look dull, and the hair lifeless and torn”‘. The narrator is frustrated at the futility of maintaining an appearance of sexuality by beautifying ‘The waste products of the body: / Hair and fingernails’, and envisions her dissociation with the body, as her hair ‘slowly melts to piss’, finally finding resolve (as the song modulates to the major key and becomes more tranquil) by fastening herself into her bathroom floor, which becomes a vessel. Hval conveys how impossible it is for women to maintain a stable sexuality when patriarchy will either deem you ugly/frigid or a whore.

But her music challenges these patriarchal preconceptions, denying the prescriptive patriarchal suppression of “deviant” sexuality. It’s most condensed in anti-phallogocentrism anthem (I love that Hval makes this a Thing) ‘Portrait of the Young Girl as an Artist’ in which she preaches the multiplicity of possibilities for young girls (‘sometimes even you have to decide / which is up and which is down’). Suddenly launching into shoegazey rock band mode for the end lends a weight to her sentiments, as she implores the listener to find an individual form of expression and transition, outside of patriarchy: ‘Not all limbs have erections’. Or perhaps it’s a reminder that sexuality doesn’t have to inform everything – it’s up to interpretation.

Hopefully I’ve explored enough of what makes Hval important while leaving many stones still unturned. There are one or two great critical appreciations out there, the best thing I’ve read is this amazing cokemachineglow review. And it’s important to stress that my view on all this is very subjective. The metaphors are abstract and jarring enough to be treated entirely differently – you won’t know exactly how to respond to all of her imagery, but its power is undeniable. She treats her sexual subject matter with at once distance and personality, provoking both an unmissable reaction and plenty of food for thought.

About decemberembers

I've noticed that all of my music-obsessed friends have completely different approaches to music in the digital age, and I'm writing this blog as an attempt to raise questions about what you experience when listening to music. It's also partly a response to a majority of music journalism which, stylistically and ethically, I find problematic. I'm trying to avoid being prescriptive and will encourage open-mindedness. :)
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