L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley
Within the past five years two all-male bands have covered the ire-raising, too-sweet-for-comfort single by The Crystals, “He Hit Me (And it Felt Like a Kiss).” Carole King and Gerry Goffin purportedly wrote the song after learning singer Little Eva had been beaten, multiple times, by her boyfriend, though Eva claimed the beatings were motivated by love. Phil Spector produced the song in 1962, letting not a note of irony seep through. “If he didn’t care for me/I could have never made him mad/He hit me and I was glad”: the song’s seeming sincerity and the near gleefulness of its sound got it banned on radio stations around the country. It justified victimhood, claimed powers-that-be.
The Blackeyed Susans’ 2009 rendition, called “She Hit Me,” nearly purges the song of it’s tooth—the “she” doing the hitting seems hot-tempered perhaps, but otherwise fairly tame. Grizzly Bear’s 2007 cover keeps “He” as the pronoun, and quiets the song. The man-on-man violence it evokes seems to play out on a leveler field, and the moodiness of the vocals come from a place of personal darkness rather than abused submission. Certainly, neither cover vindicates the female protagonist trapped in The Crystal’s original recording.
Covers are complicated projects. They let you be a fan, but also a collaborator, a history changer or, sometimes, a subverter. Musicians take them on far more freely than visual artists do; artists tend to prefer “appropriation” when feeling cynical and “homage” when feeling affectionate. But there have been a few memorable art covers, the most compelling of which may be Pipolotti Rist’s Sip My Ocean (1996), a two-channel video installation of a body in water. The soundtrack is Rist singing Chris Isaak’s stiflingly smug Wicked Game, and if you look for her cover on iTunes, you’ll find it under “I’m a victim of this Song.” Around minute three, you hear a screaming echo in the background that sounds like it’s trying to break free of the song’s over-sentimental structure: “No, I don’t want to fall in love,” it crows.
In her current solo exhibition at Thomas Solomon Gallery in Chinatown, Ever let the fancy roam, artist Rosha Yaghmai takes a less far less hostile approach to covers than Rist. She covers self-described Japanese “obsessional artist” Yayoi Kusama in a sculpture called Love Forever, which takes its title from Kusama’s 1998 MoMA retrospective and its form, in a pared down way, from Accumulation No. 2, a couch covered in white protuberances.
In a 1999 interview with BOMB Magazine, Kusama explained, “As an obsessional artist I fear everything I see. At one time, I dreaded everything I was making. The [furniture] thickly covered in phalluses was my psychosomatic work done when I had a fear of sexual vision.” This nightmarish quality is all but gone in Yaghmai’s fiberglass form, a smooth white body that look more like the ghostly sheets thrown over furniture in old houses than a sofa itself. It’s gentle and protuberance-free, and mainly just reinforces its title: love for Kusama, and for the tactile appeal of lovingly crafted physical objects, will continue forever.
If it’s unnerving when a cover of a song as implicitly brutal as “He Hit Me” tames or even overlooks that brutality, it’s also unnerving when a re-imagining of work as aggressive and textured as Kusama’s is quiet and smooth. But Yaghmai’s sculpture seems honest; smoothness is where Kusama’s influence belongs in her mind, and maybe the real question to ask is, how can aggression fade into smooth beauty over time and does this fading mean we’ve lost something or gained something along the way?