What’s it even mean to take care of yourself, asks musician Jenny Hval, a pained, contemplative exploration she sets on an icy synth melody. “Shaving in all the right places?” she wheezes rhetorically, as footage of her own live performance rolls at a faster pace than her diaristic, plaintive mumblings. “Am I taking care of myself now?”
As Norwegian feminist concept art goes, Jenny Hval’s at the vanguard, or is the vanguard; her third album, released earlier this year, is entitled Apocalypse, girl, and configures the everyday crises of womanhood as poetry worth preserving, often in their inchoate form—“first thought, best thought,” like kindred spirits Allen Ginsberg and Arthur Russell said, and believing that as a woman is an act of preservation, of prevailing over the impulse to tamp ourselves down. “Am I mothering myself? Am I taking care of myself, now? I imagine you’re doing the same, holding onto your soft dick,” she meanders on “Take Care of Yourself,” perhaps equating the impotence of women’s artistic anxiety with the corporeal impotence of a dude who can’t get it up. It’s a useful image, at least, if you need to explain to a hard-headed fellow who can’t imagine the struggle for agency we bump up against every day, just by living.
Or, in this case, perhaps not. Hval—in various wigs taunting her audience with comical bananas, time-lapse projections of herself, and band members dressed in the same garb—seems to glean a power onstage, traversing art and music in a way that feels transformative. In a conversation with at NPR (highly recommended!), Hval and critic Ann Powers had this exchange:
Radical feminist art has long used confrontational humor to dislodge some pretty deep preconceptions about identity and acceptable behavior. This is something it shares with surrealism, another one of your influences. What kind of laughter do you hope to generate with your work?
Hopefully more than one kind of laughter, but perhaps a complex laughter, one that jumps out of your mouth and then makes you think. Yes, a dislodging laughter.
A dislodging laughter–first thought, best thought—and a catharsis, a side effect of some of the best feminist art, intended or not.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.