Cat Power

By Jesse Sawyer

Okay, kids, it’s time to go over-the-top. Yes, this is a review of Cat Power’s newest offering, entitled The Greatest. But it’s also an attempt to deconstruct the relationship between listener and songwriter, the forged relations between persona and person, Barthesian “author” and real flesh-and-blood human. Furthermore, it’s a question of sadness, and whether it exists, whether emotion is real beyond its manufactured expression. So get yourself a vomit-bag and bourbon, friends, because this shit’s about to get self-indulgent. There’s a certain archetype that seems to have existed since antiquity, dating back at least to Socrates’ gourmet Hemlock Surprise. Todd Rundgren called it “The Ever-Popular Tortured Artist Effect,” so let’s just go with that. The E.P.T.A.E., as it is referred to in most learned circles, contends that the artistic object (A) created by given producer (P) attains an exponential degree of increased artistic value (V), if given producer (P) is demonstrated as being the object of masochistic torture (T) in the process of creating his or her artistic object (A). In formulaic terms, we could write this as follows:

If P + T = A, then A = V + (surplus value equivalent to T)

In other words, the amount of suffering involved in the creation of the art returns in the form of increased value in the critical appreciation of the object. In its most extreme form, such as that personified in cases like Kurt Cobain or Elliott Smith, the self-destruction of the artist allows for an almost-transcendental degree of surplus value. The act of dying for one’s art empirically confirms the E.P.T.A.E.; the artist is seen as a chemical agent burned up in the process of creating the artistic object. In this way, we can be assured that the artistic object is a literal product of the artist, in that it is made up of, contains, and reproduces a part of the artist himself.

(I could go on to discuss the way in which this sets up a self-reflexive mode of production, in which the producer is made the object of production [he is subsumed in the process like fuel for the flame], and that this self-reflexivity is especially resonant in an era of post-modern self-consciousness, but then I’d be a pretentious asshole, wouldn’t I?)

Anyways, we are talking about Cat Power. Cat Power is the alias of Chan Marshall, an artist notorious for her stage fright, alcoholism, depression, and aloofness during interviews, photo shoots, and fan interactions. This persona has always been matched by her recorded output, mostly sparsely arranged sad bastard electric folk and blues, sometimes only guitar and voice, always focused on the bottle, the sadness, and the damage done. For many like myself, listening to her 1998 breakthrough Moon Pix was like communing with someone who embodied what we thought we were; by identifying with the emotions evoked by Cat Power’s music, the listener confirmed that he too was damaged, and that this damage could be understood, if not celebrated. Perhaps, Cat Power seemed to say, it could even be beautiful.

Perhaps this explains the backhanded nature of the earliest positive reviews of The Greatest. The album is good, yes, but it’s not great. It’s a step outside of Cat Power’s creative bubble, but damn it, that bubble was a comfortably insular world. By recruiting a who’s who of Memphis Soul session musicians, Chan has produced a record that seems to have matured beyond the brink-of-collapse ephemerality of her earlier work. Instead she cribs from the book of classic soul music, a sound that exists in a different kind of sorrow, one in which the singer, no matter how beat-down and broken, finds affirmation in the act of singing itself. Soul, like blues, is its own medication; in the act of singing about just how down and out he is, the singer is redeemed, if only by the rise and fall of his own vocal cadences. I sing, therefore I am.

So it is with Cat Power. The Greatest maintains Marshall’s melancholic lyrics, and her voice still carries the rough-hewn damage of ten thousand late-night cigarettes. The musical presentation, however, seems more accessible, Marshall’s bleak outlook tempered by dominant-seventh breaks from the usual minor dirges, more Norah Jones than Leonard Cohen. Chan Marshall, it would seem, has begun to grow out of her sadness.

Here we reach the problem of our cultural notion of authorship. Cat Power’s previous records were produced from the imaginary authorial position of someone who wasn’t likely to make it through the long, cold night. Her behavior onstage and in interviews facilitated the connection between persona and person that allowed for listeners to believe this authorial position was painfully genuine. Yet, with The Greatest, Marshall shifts moods. It could be that she has simply discovered a happier existence. However, accompanying the album is also the inevitable suspicion of a more calculated attempt to gain a broader fan base, something this album will undoubtedly do. A recent GQ magazine article pointed out that Chan Marshall has grown into one of the most popular indie rock songstresses, gaining new fans with every album, and all without the aid of a manager. This from a seemingly debilitated malcontent who often couldn’t make it through a show, let alone book and manage an entire tour.

What’s important here isn’t whether or not Chan Marshall is qualitatively depressed beyond functionality, but the fact that The Greatest begs the question at all. When an artist’s music owes so much to the shared emotional position from which it is presumed to have been written, the listener requires confirmation of this position’s authenticity. This is especially true because of the reflexive nature of listening. The singer’s voice is not only her own. It is the adopted voice of the listener. If The Greatest spooks long-term listeners into a distrust of former Cat Power’s irreproducible melancholy, it calls into question the authenticity of the emotions they themselves felt and believed to be genuine. Our fates our linked. That is why The Greatest stands at a precarious crossroads: in leaving behind a part of her former self, Chan asks us to leave parts of ourselves behind as well. By implication, we must face the same question The Greatest prompts: by turning our backs on a past identity, do we delegitimize it? And if we do, then where does that leave us, but in a position of emotional skepticism? As the lyrics maintain their omnipresent desolation, the music bears them up on an optimistic lilt; the question, it seems, remains unresolved.