Bryony Kimmings thinks of her nine year old niece Taylor as a bit like a faun; while Taylor thinks of her 32 year old auntie as a dinosaur. A story of a friendship that finds a projective form as these two shape-shifters look to “put something positive into the forest”, Credible Likeable… is the theatre element of a massively ambitious “social campaign, theatre show, documentary and educational project” which seeks to beat the global tween machine at its own game by creating a new kind of popstar. In front of a backdrop of a fairytale operatic trees, they go silver like the ‘60s in futuristic slinky popstar get-up, don armour to ass-kick several buttloads of phantasmic capitalism to thunderous HI-NRG rave ascensions, and in the process produce something fine, fresh and fierce. Credible Likeable… is a hyper-savvy alchemising of Kimming’s “guilt, anger and the buzz of desperation” into a thoughtful, artful, spectacle-relacing shot of pure gold.
As Kimmings admits, her previous work has been criticised for a degree of self-involvement. About Sex Idiot I suggested in my review that perhaps “we can discern some bravery, but the result is a version of feminine sexuality that is obsessed with display, interiority without insight, caught uncomprehendingly in one-dimensional space.” I’d been reading Nina Power’s One-Dimensional Woman, and Kimmings’ very instinctive, guts out, vigorously self-focussed autobiographical work, which would continue in a similar vein with 7 Day Drunk, seemed to me haunted by the pathologies that Power was pin-pointing in late-capitalist versions of women’s emancipation. Chiefly that in the sassy celebrations of chocolate, pole dancing, shopping: “the political and historical dimensions of feminism are subsumed under the imperative to feel better about oneself, to become a more robust individual.”
It was in that light I read Kimmings’ art not as a problematisation of chocolate so much as an hour long attempt to poledance. The intact binary underlying the question of liberation through daring acts of sexual display; the apparent inability for Kimmings to connect her struggle to something beyond herself; her quests to manage and govern herself through institutions and terms that I saw as coterminous with the problem; the way a single-mindedness seemed to tumble back into self-obsession, these I read as a symptom. While Kimmings’ was not short of intelligent admirers, for me the questions and the answers she gave never stepped out of dominant logics, the kind of tragedy you want to look away from as it’s just too much.
With DIY Christmas Kimmings took a swerve, the pop sensibility taking a turn for the indie, if not the narrowband – a nativity that could be for everybody, it went head-on against the annual feast of consumption. “Children think of Christmas as presents and chocolate and Coca-Cola and TV – probably – and I’m not 100% convinced that’s what it should be about” she told this magazine last year, adding “it’s really weird because I totally hate people who work with kids”. Interesting to contrast with Peaches, with whom Credible Likeable… shared a platform at Yoko Ono’s Meltdown this year, who was a teacher before she sought to “infiltrate pop music”, getting her kids to sing songs about animals and marvelling at their imaginations, their “ability to realise anything”. But where Peaches pop career has been critical in the sense she came at a point where it was possible to twist dominant masculinist sexualities against themselves and produced shock and controversy at this untamed, excessive woman simply mirroring normalised gender roles, a strategy that perhaps has its limits (arguable where an interview in Hustler and soundtracking the Jackass movie moves us to, if it moves us anywhere) and one Kimmings freighted with runaway irony in Sex Idiot – Credible Likeable… seems to belong to a different moment.
If one suspects Kimmings has previously harboured ambitions of becoming spectacle – the brash logo, the lush hyperreal photos, the hunger to be loved and that superstar ego – here, by putting something positive in the forest, termed as pop but not on pop’s terms, something uncompromising, optimistic and suigeneris, which might be doomed to fail but won’t countenance pre-empting that with irony, it feels like Kimmings has produced one of the most crucial works yet for a gathering critical moment. One which is less inclined to rub and read against the grain in the time-honoured fashion, but dropping the dead wood and beginning on a new tree, seeks to establish the forest in all its diversity. This question is in the air, even as the pop songs and dances become ambiguous living critical texts. In Apathy, the pick of the project’s catchy pop songs (faved by one of the best commentators out of punk Suzanne Moore), this threshold moment gets direct address as a question for tweens: “is it critical of me / to try to disrupt the flow?”
And so dictated by nine year old Taylor who will become the Svengali manager, an unlikely popstar is born. Catherine Bennett works in a museum with dinosaur bones, she’s 29, likes tuna pasta, goes to the gym every day to practice her martial arts, has a proofreader boyfriend called Matthew and a Bassett Hound called Chelsea. She likes dressing up as animals, octopuses “and, of course, Victorian boys”. She is to sing songs about animals, funny-shaped vegetables, and the future. She is an ordinary lady. The idea is that she becomes famous, where fame means: one million hits on Youtube, magazine and newspaper coverage, television appearances including being flown to LA by the Ellen De Generes show, a national radio play (well of course) and an offer from a corporation to buy her out so the two can turn it down. It might be a slight spoiler alert, but Catherine hasn’t quite achieved this yet, she appears on stage singing her slightly dodgy song about the future to cracked xylophones, without the popstrel lungs, picking at her sparkly dress and letting the threads float down in sad defeat.
You’d suspect money would be the main issue: the Arts Council can only pay so many clickfarms, viral consultants and astroturfers (so many, in this case, probably being none at all). And while Kimmings relates that on her grassroots 2.0 on-the-ground tour of schools a young girl came up to inform her she no longer wants to be famous, and you roughly believe her when she says that if one kid adjusts their aspirations then the thing is a success, the possibly inevitable doomedness of CB throws the show back onto Kimmings reasons for creating it. Passionate, autobiographical direct address, anger and rage at the wrongness of the world, a self-coruscating and determined honesty, and a really deep care for Taylor and a relationship through which she has grown to face the world in a different way – as much as Taylor is directed by Kimmings it is the other way round, as much as Taylor is growing up with Kimmings, it is reciprocated. In the forest she whispers to the faun protectively “you can climb under my belly”, and the final dance number in which Kimmings goes gently, restrictedly through the motions allowing Taylor the spot is a heartbreakingly powerful closure on a kind of youth.
Taylor is a star no doubt, and if a sense of women enjoying themselves on their own BFF terms and a mutual display of support has been a keystone to girl groups from The Supremes to Atomic Kitten, then these two shine as co-conspirators, even as they don headphones in turn to give the other some private gabbing time – a canny move that skirts the potential round-robin familial sickliness were they to present a “united front”. In a funny set-piece Kimmings responds to the world by gouging out her niece’s eyes with a spoon, gorily pulling out glitter-tendoned eyeballs, precipitating Taylor to come front stage with a bloodied bandage over her eyes to whisper terrifyingly to us about networks, that she is the oracle at the frontiers of information, “you know so little about power” she repeats over and over like a cyber-Cassandra.
Later, shifting register, Taylor tells us about her day, in that elliptical breathless Cresta Run of “and thens” typical of a nine year old, becoming quite enthused when talking about the time they wanted a new word for “snuggling” (“Bubbling” is Taylor’s suggestion, but “folding” it seems was “the best because that’s what we call it now.”) This establishing of nine-year-oldness is completed with such wit, care and downright respect for Taylor it becomes the testament to their friendship, an Auntie’s love, and the superbly collaborative tenor of the piece. At the same time Kimmings establishes their difference in more alarming ways. “Show me the Katy Perry dance you learned” and Taylor enthusiastically and slightly clumsily mimes some poses some of which are definitively sexual. Behind her Kimmings strips to her bra and begins writhing, slipping hands over legs and breasts, in a note-perfect rendition of the kind of thing that wouldn’t garner a single Ofcom complaint on prime time, but here is powerful white-dot shock-treatment. While Kimmings de-kits Taylor has to go round the back for a costume change, as “the theatre didn’t think it was appropriate” garnering sardonic laughs from the audience. It’s a tightrope Kimmings plays with grace and sober style, no wobbles, like the stellar-tight dance routines which at the untroubled peaks gives us the joy of pop uncomplicated and dreamy.
The show isn’t perfect – the audience getting in on Catherine Bennett’s animal dance is kind of fun, but feels like it might have been lifted directly from schools, and perhaps misses a trick by not moving us from the assembly hall into the arena. The notion of rolemodel could feel like a simplistic throwback to before fifty years of media theory, and in that – despite the eloquent dancing and the clear suggestion that what we’re loving about pop is what pop is – Taylor’s relationship to popstars feels a little underexplored. And perhaps it’s a little thin when it comes to its analysis of the Tween market, throwing up the familiar “pester power”, and why it might be that girls of nine today are seven times more likely to develop an eating disorder and four times more likely to suffer from anxiety disorders than they were when Kimmings was that age, (that said, that analysis doesn’t pull focus is in tune with both the basis of the piece in relationships and Kimmings’ positively-charged contributory agitation).
Finally the one question which Catherine Bennett clearly skirts with her almost alienatingly performative make-up and emphasis on working hard at school: what about sexuality at that age? Isn’t pop music the privileged site of libido in society, a desire-formation nexus? And aren’t we kind of confused little desiring machines at nine, acting out some safe sexual socialisation usually into normative structures? This potentially icky obstacle is tackled through Kimmings’ take on, or graceful retreat from, classy pop and the threading in of high art codes – the operatic sense, the finely styled choreography, the backdrop and costumes, the metaphor of the forest.
Debussy’s Afternoon of the Faun caused a conjuncture in music; it’s to where Pierre Boulez dates the birth of the modern era. And Nijinksy’s 1912 ballet was shocking for the apparent occurrence of a faun masturbating onstage. In a culture where we see too much, Kimmings art is intelligent, protective and honest to the last.