Rufus Wainwright: Damned Ladies
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
Andy Warhol said a lot of hilariously accurate shit before he died, but few things struck me more than a remark he made about crying at the movies; that it was a lot easier to emote from the comfort of the seats with the distance from the screen than when the same things actually happen to you in real life. It’s pointless to prattle on like a Mom about how “oh yes, life’s just such a messy thing isn’t it;” what’s amazing is that when I’m in the middle of catastrophe—say, a breakup—I have a harder time emoting than during my experience of a song about a breakup. Maybe that’s the inherent power of art (or something); maybe I’m just broken like that, but I think a lot of people have a similar experience.
Long before Rufus Wainwright played first string JV for the gay mafia, he wrote “Damned Ladies,” a song about a series of leading women in opera. It’s basically pap—some gentle early American song piano stroll giving way to rubato swells and ebbs with some light bubbles from the outmoded Optigan proto-synthesizer—but the lyrical heart of the song is a lesson tougher and more plainly honest than any of Wainwright’s theatrical swooning. His recounting of tragic endings—“Desdemona, do not go to sleep / Brown-eyed Tosca, don’t believe the creep”—is a pose of care; all he really wants to know is: “Why don’t you ladies believe me when I’m screaming? I always believe you.”
Rufus ridiculous, pissing on the contract of popular music—it’s about identification and sympathetic vibration; a song never answers back. And if it isn’t bad enough that he’s actually screaming, he’s dumb enough to believe the pain of the opera singer, painted beyond recognition, contorted by corsets, a figure of pure performance.
And yet, he’s the variable. For all its fakery, the song won’t flinch, but Rufus will move through his feelings; for him, the damned ladies—damned to die, damned because he’s having a fit, thank you—are the equivalent of passive analysts. It’s the same thing we all do—the song comes on, the emotions come out; we believe something in the words and we resonate via our emotions. The one-sidedness of the exchange is painful and funny, but it’s also comforting—we don’t want anyone to respond when we’re being irrational and emotional, we don’t want to be seen. We can pony up our feelings in the confines of our headphones and then go out into the world and continue to be frustrated and thrilled and hurt and loved and drunk only to shut up about all of it.
What ends up happening is something almost indecipherably familiar but pretty remarkable—the songs become a part of him apart from him, because it’s within them that he finds the space to emote. The question—“Why won’t you ladies believe me when I’m screaming?”—knows that it’s illogical even as it’s being asked: if the women in the song have always ignored him, why should they listen now, and why would he want them to? It’s smart because he treads water; he admits to being moved by the singers, and while he finishes the song without answers, he has a roof, a safe haven. It’s an action that can be endlessly played out, returned to whenever we feel down; record grooves acting as troughs for our bad feeling, box sets repositories to open and close, “Last Played” a record of your attempts to cope with dead dogs, breakups, shitty days at work. Andy Warhol used to wear a different perfume every month and label the bottles; whenever he wanted to remember a period, he’d just take it out the perfume, spray it into the air, and smell a scent that had ceased to mean anything without him.