Weightless and Treacherous

All pop songs are both home and away, love and pain, yours and no one’s. Does music deceive us? Are we too naive in our approach? Or is the most beautiful thing about pop music actually the treason itself?

Augusto Alves da Silva, Ibéria, 2019. Random video projection of 5.148 colour digital images w. sound (spanish radio stations live via internet), Coll. Fundacao de Serralves – Museu de Arte Contemporanea, Porto.

I wonder if Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark had really considered the lyrics, when he quoted Lars Hug’s 1987 hit “Mon de kan reparere dig” [I wonder if they can repair you] in his speech to Crown Princess Mary at their wedding in 2004: “Come let’s walk, come let’s see / Through a thousand worlds awaits weightless love.” That’s what he said, and everyone cried a little because it was so beautiful. 

But, Hug continues: “As rain falls on flowers / you fell into my arms / And as the wind whispers in my ear / you now blow away from me.” 

Weightlessness is what causes the other to blow like the wind, away. The chorus and the crown prince speak on behalf of an I who would rather join in weightlessness, skin and bones, fleshless and irreparable, than see the other disappear. It is in this condition that he means for them to walk and see the thousand worlds. This is a matter of eternity, of afterlife. 

I was at Tegel airport en route to Copenhagen the week that Chile started rioting. My friend Maria couldn’t fall asleep even though it was the dead of night on the other side of the globe. “I think I’m homesick,” she wrote amidst the euphoria, the violence, the revolution, the exhaustion. “Send me some music. What are people listening to in Denmark?” What they always listen to, I thought, but asked instead, “what about the one I like by Medina?” and quoted, “I really need my breath back, I think you took it with you.” 

“Ugh, ‘12 Days’Not that one, she’s so fatalistic.” “Okay, so you’ve had enough of her. Lars Hug?” We both press play on “I wonder if they can repair you,” shut the world out, each from our corner of it: “I wonder how it’ll go / I wonder if they can repair you / they probably can / I wonder if you’ll be well again.”

“Oh my god, it’s about AIDS,” she gasped from Santiago. That is when it occurred to us that this is song about loss, not union. To answer the question of whether they’ll be able to repair the loved one, the final verse tentatively promises, “they probably can.” That’s the last thing you say to someone before they fall asleep for the final time. 

The way that someone can fall into your arms – not in amorous devotion, but because they can’t stand up on their own – reminds me of David Wojnarowicz’s memoir Close to the Knives (1991), in which he describes AIDS-ridden friends and lovers shrinking, stumbling, in need of support: “By the last weeks of his life he’d lost most of the feeling in his legs, and when he could get himself to his feet, he would fall endlessly forward, arms spinning like windmills until one of us would grab him, and guide him.”

As rain falls on flowers, right?  

And Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Portrait of Ross in LA) (1991), a candy pile of seventy-nine kilograms, the ideal weight of the artist’s friend and lover Ross, deathly ill. Gonzalez-Torres makes sure that the pile maintains its weight, even though the audience eats the candy, and even though Ross, while in Los Angeles, devolved into a wind that whispers in your ear: nothing. 

Kristian Vistrup Madsen. Illustration: Jenz Koudahl.

And Derek Jarman’s Blue (1993), an hour and a half in ultramarine, the last colour you see before you lose sight, as Jarman did, as a consequence of AIDS-related illness. Longing for a love that does not equal disintegration, it is surely no coincidence that what Hug’s narrator desires for eternity is exactly that: to walk and to see.

Elsewhere, Hug famously sings that “happiness is capricious” and “life senselessly hard.” How strange that the affects we gather around and which soothe our homesickness are often also brutal and mournful irrespective of whether you’re alone in the middle of a revolution, or at Tegel, that damn shed, or at a royal wedding in 2004 comparing your corporeally complete love with one that has been caught by the wind. 

Perhaps Frederik actually had considered the lyrics, but had concluded that the fellow-feeling alone, the collectivity – which, after all, is available through sadness – is enough to break existential isolation. It is also interesting that, when taken out of context, Medina’s ‘12 Days’ is equally reminiscent of Wojnarowicz: “the moment you leave me, I’ll fall over fall over.” All love is about letting your boundaries dissolve, about disappearing a little bit into someone else, and away. Ross in LA not only thematises AIDS, or death, but all kinds of presence, physicality, and loss.

But what I actually want to say here has to do with how music, with its iron grip on our memories, manages to contain other times and other places – it even lets its own content be eclipsed by our personal attachment to it. 

Last summer, I saw Augusto Alves da Silva’s work Iberia (2009) at Serralves Museum in Porto. In an enormous room, a series of over five thousand photographs of unpeopled Spanish landscapes was projected onto the back wall. The seven or eight chairs which stood in the middle of the space seemed small and fragile. The slide show was accompanied by music playing live from random Spanish radio stations. First, a country song made each picture look like a thesis on the beautiful and lonesome. Next up was Katy Perry. (It’s so awful the way she bellows, actually.) The deafening mass production made the vistas seem banal, even cheap. At that point, I had also seen quite a few of them, had become used how great the sky is, and the hills in the distance. Feelings start to fade. 

As the title suggests, Alves da Silva’s installation is a portrait of Iberian geography. But the monotony of the imagery and the fleeting and impersonal quality of the music give the portrait a hollow sound. When it dawns on you that the music is random and disloyal, and in no meaningful way imbedded in the landscape, the work is over. All songs are both home and away, love and pain, yours and no one’s. Does the music deceive us, or are we too naive in our approach? 

Perhaps the most beautiful and most honest aspect of music, pop music especially, is its treason. The promise of emotional intimacy that is staged and then revealed as copy – that disappointment is real, and mimics the loss of collectivity that we’ve come to music to heal. To the extent that songs and images tie themselves to our subjectivities, they become metaphors, deeply personal projections. And metaphors are necessarily ours alone. Everything else is gone with the wind.  

– Kristian Vistrup Madsen is a Danish writer and art critic based in Berlin. He holds degrees from Goldsmiths and The Royal College of Art in London, and is a regular contributor to Kunstkritikk, and to magazines such as Artforum, Frieze and Spike.