Every Little Star

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I filled in a long-standing gap in my cultural knowledge recently and watched Lynch’s 2001 noir masterpiece Mulholland Drive. That’s the sensation, right? Where listening to records or watching films in an era of unprecedented access begins to feel a bit like doing homework.

Except Mulholland Drive is, itself, an almost unprecedently interesting film, one capable of arousing sensations in the viewer which he was previously unaware existed.”Uncanny” is used frequently to describe a Lynchean landscape, a place where things are simultaneously banal and extraordinary, both incredibly familiar and unnervingly off.

There’s a scene in the film during which one of its central protagonists, a successful Hollywood director, auditions lead actresses for his screenplay. Shadowy organizations are pulling strings behind the scenes so that the casting decision is essentially out of his hands, but he cycles through the motions regardless, asking several of the actresses to perform different 50s pop hits in a mock-up recording studio. One of these (diegetically) auditioned actresses is played by (real life) Melissa George, singing the rendition of “I’ve Told Every Little Star” shown in the footage below.

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Genre, Values Hierarchies, & Intentionality in Pop

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Does intentionality matter? Critical consequentialism put to the ultimate test: David Cooper Moore’s “The Scary, Misunderstood Power of a ‘Teen Mom’ Star’s Album”  discusses Farrah Abraham’s infamous pop record My Teenage Dream Ended:

It’s tempting to consider My Teenage Dream Ended alongside other reality TV star vanity albums, like Paris Hilton’s excellent (and unfairly derided) dance-pop album Paris from 2006 or projects by Heidi Montag, Brooke Hogan, and Kim Kardashian that range from uneven to inept.

But the album also begs comparisons to a different set of niche celebrities— “outsider” artists.

On the I Love Music message board, music obsessives imagined the album as outsider art in the mold of cult favorite Jandek or indie press darling Ariel Pink. Other curious listeners noted similarities to briefly trendy “witch house” music, a self-consciously lo-fi subgenre of electronic dance music. In the Village Voice, music editor Maura Johnston compared Abraham to witch-house group Salem:”If [‘Rock Bottom’] had been serviced to certain music outlets under a different artist name and by a particularly influential publicist, you’d probably be reading bland praise of its ‘electro influences’ right now.”

Phil Freeman wrote about the album as a “brilliantly baffling and alienating” experimental work in his io9 review. Freeman hedged his references to Peaches, Laurie Anderson, and Le Tigre with a disclaimer that his loftiest claim was sarcastic: “Abraham has taken a form — the therapeutic/confessional pop song-seemingly inextricably bound by cliché and, through the imaginative use of technology, broken it free and dragged it into the future.”

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Chekhov’s Gun and Red Herrings: Meaning, Rules, and Transgression in Storytelling

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“If I think of somebody telling a story, I see a group of people huddled together, and around them a vast space, quite frightening.”  — John Berger

It’s probably important to start off by quickly distinguishing  between a “story” and “literature,” at least in a way that is, if not universally true, at least instrumentally valuable. Literary works often include one or more stories — did, almost always, until the twentieth century — which are used as starting points to launch all sorts of philosophical investigations into language, morals, structure, society, politics, and human behavior. Storytelling meanwhile (which will be the focus of this essay) refers to that tradition passed down from campfires and Aesop and early human history, where plot is the dominant element and engagement the primary end. Parable can occur too but is secondary, something that happens along the way or is woven in the with the narrative. The relationship between storytelling and literature then, at least as conceived here, is a spectrum between plot-driven and idea-driven texts, where the each tradition prioritizes one end more than the other. Some might simplify the narrative end of “engagement” to “entertainment,” but this strikes me as reductive — the Berger quote above illustrates a way in which engaging storytelling builds almost an abstract shelter for early man, an inner space in which structure engenders a desirable sensation of safety, predictability, and teleological meaning far removed from some “frightening,” meaningless, and ostensibly chaotic outer world.

Good storytelling is certainly an art, and all art forms develop principles or rules which, when followed, improve an artist’s odds of making a meaningful product. Art is consequentialist in this way — it isn’t an adherence to the rules itself which makes good art, it’s just that certain techniques, approaches, or decisions lend themselves to higher rates of artistic success. Chekhov’s Gun is one such narrative principle, a piece of advice popularized by the playwright Anton Chekhov, which counsels that all notable objects or details in a story should somehow contribute to its plot: “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.” This is arguably part of a larger principle of compressed or economic storytelling, where every event, character — basically every word and paragraph — goes to work in some meaningful, valuable, and irreplaceable way in developing a narrative or else keeping the reader engaged. In a broad sense, even elements like character development are merely means towards shuttling the reader from the first to last page of a story:

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