The haze as a permanent condition

These past few days have been an assault on all my senses. The haze that blankets the city makes me feel dirty and slow, as if I’m sinking deep within something grey and viscous that makes movement difficult. It covers the city and seeps into the pores of your skin. My face feels like it’s grown another layer, like wearing an invisible balaclava in a very hot climate. I feel things on me. I wake up and look out the window into white. 

Behind the Zhongshan Building, they’ve cut down all the trees to build, I heard, a tunnel, leading to Merdeka 118, which is also still under construction. It’s supposed to be taller than the Twin Towers — even now, in its unfinished stage, you can already see it from every direction. Dhavinder Singh has already incorporated it as part of his artwork, Test Tanah, and I imagine many other artists will take advantage of its imagery in time to come. Its phallicism has penetrated deep into the national consciousness of our current times, it looms over us all. Everyone can’t stop talking about it and complaining about it, because it relentlessly reminds us of its presence, by appearing in all lines of sights, and by assaulting us with the noise of its various construction projects. Hearing about it becomes almost obnoxious, like how complaining about the haze becomes obnoxious after a while. When you’re constantly sensorially assaulted by something, hearing other people complain about their own haze-related suffering adds to the sensorial assault. It becomes obnoxious because we all feel pissed off and gross but we’re all powerless to do anything about it. And what we’re getting is only the blowback; the scenes in Kalimantan are much worse. The city becomes this festering wound that discomforts everyone within it, though we are also the germs souring the injury.  Everywhere I go, I just hear sounds of big unnatural things colliding into each other. 

The haze makes one thing clear: capitalism is a constant attack on our public life, despite its claims of enriching it. The Merdeka 118 towers are supposed to represent… something… contribute… something… to society, gives us yet another phallic symbol of national pride for us to stroke though nobody asked for it, etc., but the road to it is paved with a whole lot of deforestation and loud clanging noises. The green trees, the sound of birds, the sight of the moon: these things aren’t just disappearing quietly, they’re being taken from us, very loudly and disruptively. While I was in Zhongshan one night, staring out at the construction site next door and commenting how noisy its work is, my friend pointed out that the homes we live in were all built on the same basis. The building we occupy probably annoyed the crap out of everyone else in the vicinity during its construction. And of course, every new MRT/LRT station is always a plus for me.

I’m not so reactionary to say that an end to all development is the answer, because there are “productive” developments, I guess, like public transport stations or new schools. I’m not a pre-industrialist anti-civilizationist whatever, and I’m not likely to ever move out of the city, at least not anytime soon. What I resent is development for the sake of development — towers like Merdeka 118 which are supposed to be tall just to be tall. To take up space just to take up space. Being marketed as something for the public to be “proud of”, but which really doesn’t serve any public need that I’m aware of.

Some discomfort is necessary for the modernising process, to create an urban environment that works for all, but now it’s become more crucial than ever to clearly verbalise what we’re willing to tolerate, and for what purpose. The haze is a permanent condition; even when it clears up this time round, it won’t get better. Unclear skies mean obscure intentions; the worst scenario isn’t that the intentions are malicious, but that they are simply unconsidered, i.e. doing for the sake of having something to do.

Lana Del Rey as cowboy, cowboy as in love

I’ve read the recent resurgence of the cowboy as symbol as a pastoral desire to return to “better” times. Like Gatsby chasing after the lost world of the green light, the second coming of the cowboy is a generation’s yearning backwards at an ancient myth, rather than history. Everyone knows, rationally, that nostalgia is a dangerous drug, and that the past isn’t as romantic as the movies make it out to be.

Well, Lana Del Rey never made the past out to be romantic, per se. She’s been accused of romanticising violence, which means romanticising America, but when her music has appealed to me, it hasn’t been because I start believing that men are better than me or start victim blaming women. No, Del Rey doesn’t romanticise violence if romanticising it means I start to yearn for it — I never yearn for violence through her music. I never understood, either, the concept of Del Rey as sex symbol, even though she is undeniably gorgeous, with her old world Hollywood charm. Del Rey’s voice is too solid, too masterful, for me to regard her as pathetic or otherwise lacking agency. Especially when she is read against her superstardom, LDR is for me cowboy.

But “cowboy” in the sense that Mitski meant it on Be the Cowboy, not whatever superficial idea Lil Nas X and yeehaw emoji culture peddle. I mean “cowboy” in the same sense as Rick Dalton’s character in the film within a film in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, another throwback to an old world that came out a few months before Del Rey’s latest knockout album, Norman Fucking Rockwell! The Tarantino film is a celebration of a Hollywood of dreams, a golden age of Hollywood in the 60s, a Hollywood that was, or wasn’t, I can’t tell, having not been born at the time and having no real interest in it. But it’s besides the point whether it truly existed or not, just like how nostalgia isn’t really a desire for a past time, but rather just a backdrop for fantasy.

If the cowboy is the male version of the mythological lost past, as exemplified in Rick Dalton’s character, then the character of the perfect angelic starlet seems like the female version, as exemplified by Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate, or Lana Del Rey’s Lana Del Rey. (Even the three-part name seems like a throwback to a golden age where it wasn’t pretentious yet [think JFK, FDR, LBJ…].) The cowboy is noble, self-sacrificing, handsome, and unafraid. The perfect maiden is the same, with the caveat that she is all these things for love of the cowboy, while the cowboy is allowed to be all these things for some “higher”, manlier pursuit, such as Honour, Justice, The Truth, etc.

In music critic Ann Powers’ review of Norman Fucking Rockwell! for NPR, she summarised the album in such a way as directly struck me in my deepest insides: 

‘The album’s dominant story line describes an affair with a fellow artist in which the power roles never solidify, a situation Del Rey depicts as unsustainable but clarifying. Addressing this bohemian deadbeat, she upends the gender roles she’s so often fetishized, trading in her kitten heels for kicks that allow her to keep walking. She cusses at her “man child,” demanding that he grow up; she describes herself as the more active breadwinner (“you write, I tour, we make it work”). At one point, in a sonic nod to Leonard Cohen, she simply announces, “I’m your man.”

It’s the trope of the self-sacrificing maiden but supplanted into 21st-century reality, out of the movies and far from the cowboys. What Powers’ review points out is, despite it all, despite how “woke” we’re supposed to be now, there’s still something compelling and highly relatable about this unliberated female figure who sets the feminist movement back by decades. The princess who wraps her arms around her man, who wages everything on him, who has never stopped indulging in the clichés of 2011’s Video Games, Del Rey’s first major hit. Heaven is a place on earth with you.

Powers’ review confronts this question: in the age of #MeToo and #DumpHim… what if bright, young, smart women fall in love with problematic men, and it’s no one’s fault? Del Rey is relentlessly a conservative heterosexual. You can say that, or you can say, as Ann Powers did, that Del Rey is relentlessly pursuing ‘what she still guilelessly calls “love”.’ Norman Fucking Rockwell! is a love story. 

I’m afraid to suggest that heterosexuality probably is a protracted power struggle. All intimate relationships are probably, however subtly, a protracted power struggle, but heterosexual ones most of all. Del Rey doesn’t denounce this or try to change this in any way, and there lies, at least for me, NFR!’s most compelling quality. In another recent album I loved, Mitski explored various “personas” of a cowboy (or approaching the cowboy) in Be the Cowboy, released just last year. Among the songs, she takes on personas that are similar to that of the cowboy archetype, being cold and rigid when it comes to sex and intimacy; leaving before the opportunity to get hurt. The album is polished, tightly-wound, well-executed, each song perfectly self-contained within its 2-3 minutes. Within this perfection of sound, she explores yearning and romantic delirium, and there’s one song, Me and My Husband, that explores the yearning of domesticity, a yearning that stretches into the endless horizon.

I wonder if Mitski would think that Del Rey’s NFR! has attained to the cowboy. If the cowboy is the figure who perpetually, perhaps naively, yearns towards the unattainable, the perfect ideals, then yes, the figure of the woman in NFR! is cowboy. However,  where certain personas in Be the Cowboy seem to turn away from love in order to follow the true path of the cowboy, the persona in NFR! fixates on love as the ultimate ideal. LDR’s persona is committed to her “man child”.

The album begins with the lines (indelibly imprinted in my brain), ‘God damn, man child. You fucked me so good that I almost said I love you. … Your poetry’s bad, you blame it on the news.’ Brash, disgusted. But the album ends with songs of hope and quiet persistence. Happiness is a Butterfly is the one that a colder person might say “I told you so” to (as a lot of us straight females have un-self-consciously said to many other girl friends, or at least thought to ourselves while watching them sob [I will never love like that, such a stupid thing could never happen to me]), as it recites pleas of hurt over and over again. It’s a sparse song, relying on the strength of Del Rey’s voice and her piano. 

Don’t be a jerk, don’t call me a taxi 

Sitting in your sweatshirt, crying in the backseat 

I just want to dance with you… 

God, it’s so childish. At least Mitski’s Two Slow Dancers had a bit more sophistication to it, at least it wasn’t so desperate, at least it wasn’t crying, at least it didn’t have such a hackneyed title like “happiness is a butterfly”, which, in another context, you could imagine as typed in some terrible font on a cheap notebook in the stationery section of a bookstore that’s been making losses for the past few years. In any other mouth, in any other hands, NFR! is an album of songs that the modern woman might cringe away from, but isn’t it another cliché that clichés capture humanity’s most basic and universal truths. 

Del Rey’s unique quality is that she wrenches all the terrible clichés and terrible beliefs out from our hearts where they’ve continued to reside this whole time, and, with the album, presents them back to us as the beautiful things they’ve always been. With all this talk about cowboys and who has the more perfect ideal, what I really mean is I’m glad she’s given us Norman Fucking Rockwell!, an outlet through which to believe. I’m glad she’s saying all the things I’m too scared to say, for fear of being thought weak. I’m glad a bright, young, talented woman out there is still singing about love, and falling hard, because I, too, continue to make the non-decision of falling terribly in love.