a la ventura: cassie’s syncopated heart

The genius of the heart who silences all that is loud and self-satisfied, teaching it to listen; who smooths rough souls and lets them taste a new desire — to lie still as a mirror, that the deep sky may mirror itself in them […] the genius of the heart from whose touch everyone walks away richer, not haveing received grace and surprised, not as blessed and oppressed by alien goods, but richer in himself, newer to himself than before, broken open, blown at and sounded out by a thawing wind, perhaps more unsure, tenderer, more fragile, more broken, but full of hopes that as yet have no name, full of new will and currents, full of new dissatisfaction and undertows […] namely, no less a one than the god Dionysus, that great ambiguous one.
-Friedrich Nietzsche

Even the greatest stars discover themselves in the looking glass […]
She made up the person she wanted to be
And changed into a new personality

-Siouxsie And The Banshees, “Hall of Mirrors”

“It was nice to experience other people.” -Cassie Ventura, in response to questions about her forthcoming album

The two most traditional aspects of dancing — the formal art, and the public ritual of courtship — have gradually separated from each other. Technical skill has been incorporated into competitive dance, and especially into troupe dancing, which is inspiring (and a little intimidating, to me anyway, even though I do Support Our Troupes). Public courtship has become a free-form, Dionysian celebration at clubs, concerts, and festivals. Dance has become more playful; when you’re not dancing with anyone in particular, there aren’t any rules.

Dancing by yourself is a game you play with who you are, which is why the image of dancing in front of a mirror has always been so irresistible. The best mirror song, “The Man In The Mirror,” was written by Michael Jackson, the same man who essentially invented modern solo dancing. “You” are somewhere between your body and its reflection. In musical terms, that places you somewhere between the accent (i.e. the beat) and the unaccented measure — between who you are and who you could be.

This is not without its frightening side. The Kraftwerk song “Hall of Mirrors,” and the cover by Siouxsie, are terrifying. Britney’s always used solitude to scary effect, most recently in “Hold It Against Me,” where she beats the shit out of herself. The “it” is, of course, “your body,” which is as much a prison as it is a playground.

Jacques Lacan is not always the clearest writer, but he’s the authority on this issue thanks to his essay on “The Mirror Stage,” where he writes,

The jubilant assumption of his [image in the mirror] by the [infant] still trapped in his motor impotence […] seems to me to manifest in an exemplary situation the symbolic matrix in which the I is precipitated in a primordial form […] the total form of his body, by which the subject anticipates the maturation of his power in a mirage […] that freezes it and in a symmetry that reverses it, in opposition to the turbulent movements [that is, the dance] with which the subject feels he animates it.

This culminates in “the finally donned armor of an alienating identity that will mark his entire mental development with its rigid structure.” In other words, the infant moves from playing with his limbs, to feeling trapped by them, to trying to dominate his situation by over-identifying himself with his own prison: “this is me.” This ends in madness:

The subject’s capture by his situation gives us the most general formulation of madness — the kind found within the asylum as well as the kind that deafens the world with its sound and fury.

Lacan feels that “psychoanalysis alone” recognizes “the knot of imaginary servitude that love must always untie anew or sever,” but he is wrong. Music recognizes it as well. The trick is to use the mirrors themselves to disturb the pattern and provoke an unsettled openness. Thus Nietzsche’s “new desire — to lie still as a mirror,” and paradoxically to become “more unsure, tenderer, more fragile, more broken, but full of hopes that as yet have no name, full of new will and currents.” Rhythmically, this is expressed by syncopation. I wrote about syncopation at the end of 2011, even though, at the time, I didn’t realize that’s what it was:

A lot of people ask me why I insist on comparing Katy B to the Bee Gees, which somehow manages to insult everyone, no matter which artist they prefer. Well, you know how “Stayin’ Alive” creates that weird, fluid rhythmic space where no matter how you dance, you seem to be on the beat? Which was pretty much the best thing ever for people with my dancing skills? That same trick works over and over again on the Katy B album. Katy slows it down to a purr where the beat skitters and freaks out, and then she sings her lungs out while the beat stalls and fills with bass. The result is bigger than the space it is given, bigger than headphones, bigger than a warehouse.

Syncopation in fact co-evolves, at least in the West, with melodic techniques that are, themselves, kinds of mirrors. Here’s Number 13 from “The Art of Fugue,” by Johann Sebastian Bach:

Actually, it’s easier to see the involution here (the dance, dance, involution):

Those are merely examples of “chamber pop,” but the future of pop music is in syncopation, which is why I was so relieved to discover that Cassie hasn’t gone anywhere. She’s still around and is cooking up a new album.

In case you don’t remember Cassie, she’s the R&B singer who showed up in 2006 with “Me & U,” an attempt to distill Ciara, Beyonce, and Janet into the simplest terms possible. Even the title is all of four characters long. She moves and she doesn’t; she’s been waiting, and she’s thinking about making that move.

She went on hiatus, appearing (of course) in the dancing movie Step Up 2: The Streets, and releasing some generic, charming singles, including “Is It You?” and “Official Girl.” But now Cassie’s back for real with “King of Hearts,” backed up by a small army of other singles, most of which haven’t gotten much attention yet: “Make U A Believer,” “Balcony” with Jeezy, and “Let’s Get Crazy” with Akon. I found out she was back when Pitchfork added the Richard X remix of “King of Hearts” to their list of best new songs.

Forget the remix, though. Like Kanye West’s own remix of “King of Hearts,” it’s an attempt to control and standardize Cassie, who is otherwise a force of nature. Richard X inserts the steady hum of an outboard motor, and so robs the song of that crucial, breathless wobble.

In 2005, her album cover made her look like a pop star from 1986; now, in 2012, she’s embracing a hairstyle from the proud Black fashions of the early 1990s, paired with clothes from the late Sixties. Rihanna, of all people, is copying her. Cassie strikes me as really, truly, off the wall. But that could be reading way too much into some pieces of dance music. I mean, it’s not like she’s dancing in front of a mirror, or something.

When you left them back on the farm
For the city at dawn
The drone of the young and the hum
Of the pretty were songs
You thought you’d never forget
It’s a pity they’re gone

When the sun goes down and the moon appears
You go looking for love in the hall of mirrors