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Art as the critic: ‘Skylight,’ language and the ambiguity of sexual communication

| Thursday, October 4, 2018

Ruby Le | The Observer

On the relationship between the artist and his or her art, I side with Michel Foucault — even though “It has been understood that the task of criticism is not to re-establish ties between the author and his work or to reconstitute an author’s experience through his works and, further, that criticism should concern itself with the structures of a work […] which are studied for their intrinsic and internal relationships,” we can still pose the query: “Yet what of a context that questions the concept of a work? (from “What is an Author?”)” I would argue that the enigmatic context in which Pinegrove released “Skylight,” a context swelling with linguistic ambiguity, inherently questions concepts implicit in the album’s form and content, which primarily investigate the role of ambiguous communication in relationships. Because the “intrinsic and internal” dialogue of “Skylight” has quite a bit to say about the interplay between language, sexuality and power, its content naturally illuminates some of the patterns and structural weaknesses of the “sexual coercion” allegations made against Evan Stephens Hall and their fallout.

For context, I turn to Jenn Pelly’s recent Pitchfork feature, which quotes Hall in an attempt to fairly and assiduously untangle the web of uncertainty surrounding his alleged wrongdoings. “At first, I felt defensive,” Hall tells Pelly. “I was trying to understand what the accusation was.” He then shifts, “But, OK, certainly this isn’t from nowhere. If [the alleged victim] came away feeling bad about our encounter, feeling like she couldn’t express how she was feeling honestly at the time, that’s a huge problem.” Hall goes on to explain his linguistic decisions, particularly the use of the phrase “sexual coercion” in his apology message: “It was meant as a symbol of respect to have her dictate the language of the conversation. In the context of our relationship, she felt I had sometimes pressured her into having sex — not physically, but verbally and contextually.”

“When I really think back to the statement,” Hall further muses, “the language is just so dissonant and horrible. It’s not ever what I’ve meant to convey.” Concluding his thoughts on the statement itself, “I’ve gotten into all sorts of trouble throughout my life just not knowing when to stop, verbally.”

To summarize, an unexpected allegation against Hall urges the musician to re-examine his deployment of “verbal” and “contextual” pressure during past relationships as well as his use of “dissonant” language in response to the allegations. Additionally, Hall’s comment — “certainly this isn’t from nowhere” — raises questions about the complicated nature of consent and the imprecise definition of the term mutual.

“I draw a line in my life / Singing this is the new way I behave now,” Hall’s narrative voice sings (with unforeseen relevance) on “Skylight’s” opening track “Rings,” projecting a promise of solidity, of trustworthiness. But his base quivers as thorough introspection (“Letting you know I trust you so much / Then I’m looking at you through the lights / A circle blinking in the tungsten / Wondering how I seem to you”) suggest another narrative at play — the perspective of the singer’s amorous object — which may not agree with that of the singer. “I draw line in my skin,” the singer recycles, “I’m pinning down inchoate” — undeveloped, unrefined — “meaning.” The line in question, perhaps representative of the singer’s unflinching though undeveloped self-image, “circulates around town” and the singer does nothing to stop it (“Do I double down because I’m stubborn?”). “Portal” extrapolates “Rings’” suggestion of dissonance between the lover and the loved into a fully formed dichotomy. Parallel chorus structures (“Isn’t it lovely / I’ll never hold you” against “Isn’t it lonely / I’ll never hold ya”) delineate perspective fission that, in one respect, reads schizophrenic, indicative of the singer’s internal conflict, but also evokes external divisions between the singer and the object of his gaze. The singer attributes this perspective divide to “The shapes / We use to communicate” (i.e. language, symbology), which create problems both open to analysis and seemingly intractable.

In her book “Communicative Sexualities,” Jaqueline M. Martinez condenses the above suggestions to discreet terms: “Consider the fact that sexuality itself — that is the fact that our lived experiences of sexuality can be as joyfully and passionately shared as they can be humanely degrading and isolating.” And, because sexuality exerts its influences in relation to another, “what one person finds degrading another can find fulfilling.” Martinez continues to say that the predisposition “to think we can ‘know’ and understand sexuality separate from our personal experience of it predominates in ways we are almost always unaware of.” Consequently, even the singer, so invested in “the shapes / We use to communicate” and patently attuned to semiological ambiguity (Saussure’s arbitrary sign) can still ignore blatant divineness in a relationship because he only has access to his own inherently skewed and structurally closed language of sexual feeling. In much the same way, Hall, who time and time again has spoken on his interest in the ambiguity of language as it pertains to love, still speaks within a linguistic system that combines his innate privilege as a man and a public figure with his structural limitations to reshape what the other views as “coercion” in a softer light.

“Easy Enough” builds upon the conceptual framework of “Rings” and “Portal” with suggestions about the ill-effects of self-delusion on the male gaze: “It’s easy enough to lie to myself / My eye, my carnivore / Circling appetite.” Again, we find Martinez’s image of clouded sexual communication, this time funneled through the patriarchy’s hegemonic noise gate so as to suppress animalistic urges (“my carnivore / Circling appetite”). “All my limits / I’m on my feet / I’m on my way / I’m wondering?” the singer proceeds, in a spurt of self-awareness. But it must be understood that the singer’s admittance of his limits does not necessarily point to his substantial attempts to control them. Self-awareness does eradicate fallibility or, more importantly, responsibility for the actions performed. It is along this conceptual line that Hall, though openly “in favor of dismantling patriarchal structures,” still feels and admits the gravity of his faults, even if he may not fully understand them.

“Skylight’s” arc is not without redemption, but its redemption emerges by catharsis. “Suddenly I find / I’ve got darkness on my mind,” the singer declares, as blind passions disintegrate, leaving only critical reflection — “I know it’s been a long time coming / I’m angry and I know that weak.” The volta occurs here, at rock bottom, when the singer, stripped and desolate, can finally interpret his urges objectively (as far as objectivity is possible): “Let me / Let go / Whatever you’re feeling is natural.”  Thus, as “Darkness” transitions to “Skylight,” so too does the singer travel internally from self-absorbed dejection through the cathartic gauntlet and into a state of contentment. At this point, the singer can escape his internal prison and focus outward: “I wanna be / better to you.” Though his new outward-facing perspective necessitates the support of another: “I wanna learn you forever / So leave your light on!”

The album’s triumphant end heralds a protagonist’s glowing victory against the bad parts of himself. But here I must again invoke Foucault to remind the reader that, although ideas drawn from a creator’s art can freely intermingle with the context of its creation, the art and the artist are still separate entities. While Hall’s admission (“my actions have caused someone I care about deep emotional pain and I’m sorry”), scrape with rock bottom (“the emotional impact of seeing people calling me a rapist, which is not even what I’m being accused of”) and turn towards the light (“But I’m learning a lot […] having tough conversations and pushing myself and those around me to dismantle the structures of privilege that have built and bound us”) draw comparisons to “Skylight’s” conceptual arc, we cannot assume that Hall’s situation will proceed and wrap itself up as neatly as his art.

Issues of language, power, trauma and weaponized sexuality will not resolve in a roughly 30-minute window. More significantly, their explanation and resolution will not come from a single, white, heterosexual and male voice. Remedies for structural illnesses sewn into broad, ambiguous populations must come from equally capacious, diverse sources.

“Skylight” by Pinegrove is available on Bandcamp. All proceeds will be split between Musicares, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and The Voting Rights Project.

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