It feels counterintuitive to have found a sense of rejuvenation and freedom in a show about the oppressive nature of the patriarchy, but a pandemic will do that to you.
My first live performance in 15 months was Ragnar Kjartansson’s blistering and yet cathartic Romantic Songs of the Patriarchy at the Guggenheim Museum. Freely moving around the Guggenheim with limited crowds and masked visitors, it was the perfect show for where my mind and body are at right now. Provoking, socially-distanced rage.
Of course, Kjartansson knows his way around durational performance (my first experience with his work was living through all 6 hours of A Lot of Sorrow live). This installation involves women and nonbinary performers singing “love” songs from artists like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Cat Stevens, and Tammy Wynette.
The songs are not all written by men. The voices in them are not exclusively men’s voices. But they are a road map through the terrain of men negging, coercing, abusing, threatening, cajoling, lusting after, possessing, reveling in, and ostensibly “romancing” women.
The performers are primarily stationed throughout the spiral of the Guggenheim with only acoustic guitars (arrangements by Kendra McKinley and Kjartan Sveinsson). They then play the songs over and over again. Among the tunes were “He Hit Me (and It Felt like a Kiss),” “Run for Your Life,” “Under My Thumb,” “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” “Fire,” and “Blurred Lines.”
The acoustics at the Guggenheim are less than kind to something like this and in certain points I could only strain to hear the lyrics. But the show works on both an individual song level and in its collective impact.
Sometimes as I walked up and down the ramp, I could hear lyrics just float by out of context. Otherwise, I was forced to sidle up as close to the singers as I could (there was a protective semi-circle around each) and focus on what they were saying.
“Under my thumb…”
“Stand by your man.”
“I know you want it”
“You let me violate you…you bring me closer to god.”
“You said it best when you said nothing at all”
She said, “I never want to make you mad I just want to make you proud” I said, “Baby, just make me cum, then don’t make a sound”
Stripping the songs of any pop or rock flourishes, leaving the lyrics and points of view bare, the sickening creep of it all just starts to pile up—who is speaking, whose emotional needs are being discussed, whose pleasure is centered, and whose perspective is paramount. Take for instance, Springsteen’s “Fire,” where he says she doesn’t like it when he pulls her close. But he’s concluded she’s a liar. Because when they kiss, he feels fire.
The songs were sung with feeling, but not necessarily the original ones intended.
Emily Bate sang “Run for Your Life” by The Beatles which has some of the most terrifying lyrics:
Well, you know that I’m a wicked guy
And I was born with a jealous mind
And I can’t spend my whole life
Trying just to make you toe the line
You better run for your life if you can, little girl
Hide your head in the sand, little girl
Catch you with another man
That’s the end, little girl
Let this be a sermon
I mean everything I’ve said
Baby, I’m determined
And I’d rather see you dead
Bate’s voice soared with these high airy notes, but each word that rose up was one of destruction—”wicked guy,” “run,” “determined,” “dead.” Bate’s siren-like voice was a trick and you were headed straight for a rocky shore. I burst into tears.
I worried that these performers were being tortured by having to sing these songs over and over. But I noticed there were “shift changes.” While the songs kept playing, the performers got a break. Some switched songs (Emily Bate later was singing “Stand by Your Man” although I’m not sure that’s really a reprieve of any kind).
But the labor is on the performers and the repetition, the benign neglect of passing museum-goers, and having the singers hold space for these sentiments is a huge ask.
Some songs offered a little room for examination and commentary in how they were performed, while others were so lyrically ensnaring there was no way out. Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor’s “Closer” starts off with:
You let me violate you
You let me desecrate you
You let me penetrate you
You let me complicate you
I watched Rose Stoller perform this and it seemed like there was no way to rebel against the song. She was trapped. I was trapped.
Some damn fool of a man came up and stood beside me during it like the most clueless dickhead on earth. And I just wanted to scream at him, “YOU KNOW YOU ARE IMPLICATED HERE.” My pent-up rage over time was also hard to hold.
But how do you acknowledge Stoller’s labor here? You cannot clap. This song has not earned the applause. But her performance demands something. I felt so helpless. Wearing a mask, I could not even offer a smile, solidarity, a grimace. After one cycle of the song, she moved away from the audience and kind of folded herself in half on the swoop of the wall. That one was a lot.
Alex Koi faced the wall to play “Blurred Lines” at the start. Later she was running to the rotunda edge and shouting “I know you want it.” I could hear her howl from another level of the spiral.
It all accumulated into a snowstorm of misogyny just floating in the air. But you had to pay attention. It was a holiday weekend at a museum and some people just strolled by the performers. This too was part of the point. These songs have just been the background music of our lives. And these sentiments the everyday misogyny have been baked into our culture. There were songs included that I’ve certainly heard before, but did I ever really listen to them?
With very few people standing in front of the performers, it was like watching a one-on-one performance. I often waited until the singer was not alone to move on to the next one. It was doubly cruel to leave them singing all this pain to no one.
But also the one-on-one nature created an intensity that could be too much for me. I could not handle the singers’ gaze. Who was responsible for making them go through this? The original songwriters, Kjartansson, the patriarchy, or me.
Maybe the only solace I could offer was to listen and carry some of the weight of these words that they had to otherwise bear alone.
After all this pandemic stasis and isolation, the “hard work” in watching this piece felt good. It flicked on switches in my brain that had been dusty with neglect. Maybe feeling anger, frustration, terror, and sadness isn’t someone else’s idea of a fun day out. But it reminded me why I cared about art in the first place.
Ragnar Kjartansson: Romantic Songs of the Patriarchy was organized by Nat Trotman, Curator, Performance and Media, with Terra Warren, Curatorial Assistant. Originally commissioned by C Project and curated by Tom Eccles, the piece premiered at the Women’s Building, San Francisco, in 2018.