Lyrical Oppression: A Performance by Ragnar Kjartansson

Performance view of Ragnar Kjartansson's Romantic Songs of the Patriarchy, 2018; at Women’s Building, San Francisco. Courtesy C Project. Photo Quinn Gravier.

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Ragnar Kjartansson’s Romantic Songs of the Patriarchy was presented as a durational musical performance at the Women’s Building in San Francisco November 9 through 11 by C Project, a new nonprofit in the Bay Area. The Women’s Building is an essential space in the city. Because it was purchased by the San Francisco Women’s Center in the mid-’90s, the building is protected from the fast-paced development surrounding it in the Mission District. Crucial organizations like San Francisco Women Against Rape and Mujeres Unidas y Activas are housed there.

The building itself is large and beautiful, with a complex floorplan that enabled Kjartansson to stage the performance as a labyrinthine exploration. On all its four floors, in nooks, closets, offices, bathrooms, and on top of mailbox banks, women with acoustic guitars played pop songs. The performers were not identified by name. They wore black clothes that were similar save for a few individual flourishes. Most of them appeared to be young and white. At least two of the songs were sung in Spanish.

The selection drew widely and variously from American and British pop songbooks. Almost all of them were written by men. Some were instantly recognizable, like “Every Breath You Take” by the Police or “Stand By Your Man” by Tammy Wynette. Occasionally it would take a minute to identify the tune in its translation from club banger or country standard to quiet folk solo. I stood in soft disbelief as I slowly discerned Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” disconnected from its catchy hook (stolen from Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up”). I wrote down stray lines from other songs I didn’t recognize, later identifying them as Doris Day’s “A Guy is a Guy,” the Beatles’ “Run for Your Life,” and Lil Wayne’s “Bitches Love Me.”

The irony of the performance’s title is unambiguous. All the pieces in Romantic Songs conflate menace with eros, as is typical for pop and R&B. One would be hard pressed to identify which misogynist poem is most terrifying. The explicit sexism of the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb” (note the pronoun shift: “It’s a squirming dog who’s just had her day”) echoes in the suggestion of abuse in “Blurred Lines” (whose refrain threatens, “you know you want it.”) These fairly blatant texts are shades of the subtler oppression in songs like “Stand By Your Man,” a paean to fealty even—and especially—when such loyalty is self-sabotaging.

If Romantic Songs of the Patriarchy emerges from the obvious insight that the tradition of American pop reflects deep connections to structures of misogyny and patriarchy, the staging complicates the picture. Each performer played her respective song in a loop that continued throughout the show’s three days, for a total of nineteen hours. I visited at the beginning of the weekend, and I can only imagine the deep weariness these performers were bound to experience playing these short sexist songs again and again over three days. I wondered what effect this calisthenic exertion would have on the songs as well. Would playing them so many times estrange the violence in the material, or amplify it?

Other questions came to me as I moved through the space. Are these recitals meant to be enjoyed? Are we supposed to focus on the performer’s guitar technique, the range and nuance of her voice, her outfit and comportment? Most of the singers were very good, unable or unwilling to render these disasters as anything but pleasant to hear. They insisted that we accept this conflation of the mellifluous and the malicious. When I ran into friends, none of us really knew how to behave. The work declined to suggest an expected audience response or impose a code of manners on the work—perhaps related to its avoidance of conventional boundaries between viewers and performers. I suspect these numerous confutations were intentional, meant to counter the work’s somewhat obvious premise.

Kjartansson’s performances frequently involve subjecting songs to repetition over extended durations. A Lot of Sorrow (2015) is a music video and concert film, in which indie rock band The National performs their song “Sorrow” repeatedly for six hours. A cynical reading of Romantic Songs of the Patriarchy would suggest that it’s a feminist twist on the same idea, trading in the melancholic figure of the depressed indie rocker for women singer-guitarists. Through the lens of this reading, Romantic Songs looks like a very soft protest against the immiserating heft of subjugation.

The performance did not, of course, resolve the problem of beautiful pop songs glamorizing structural misogyny. Kjartansson’s staging transformed the Women’s Building, displacing its regular function as a home for social justice nonprofits and making it a temporary museum of violence against women. This arrangement recalled the big urban haunted house, where a violent and terrible surprise lurks around every corner. And, as in the haunted house, the terror of what awaits us in Romantic Songs of the Patriarchy is a trauma many of us long for.

The contradiction is a miserable one. The songs, which are impossible to defend or promote, are also some of the most beautiful a good number of us will ever hear. The wails and strumming echoed throughout the halls of the Women’s Building, in conference rooms named after Audre Lorde and grungy nonprofit cubicles; the songs felt newly alluring and definitely repugnant. As part of its study of these lovely and grotesque works of art, Romantic Songs allowed these artifacts of structural sexual violence to persist as sweet sound objects, divorced from their power by the pleasure of their melodies.