"Asido": Whimsical Desolation

“Asido” (link) is the first and only standalone single released by Canadian electronic pop / dream pop / witch house band Purity Ring, not counting their cover of Soulja Boy’s “Grammy” (which is radically different from the original song, and actually really good).

Purity Ring is not a band I thought I would enjoy based on genre alone, but something about them just clicks with me — perhaps their ethereal, yet graphic lyrics and unique sound. You can find the lyrics for “Asido” here, although I wouldn’t trust the Genius interpretations of the individual lyrics for meaning, since the only commenter seems convinced that the band was referencing an obscure comic series from the 1980s, which is a bit of a stretch.

That said, I do agree with the general interpretation of the song Genius gives: “Haunting vocals and piano, dark brooding synths, a sharp snare, and a deep hollow kick mix with Biblical themes and illustrious lyrics to paint an evocative picture of the destruction that humans have sown upon the Earth.” Yeah, that scans. I’d claim that the meaning of the song is to express the experience of watching said destruction being sowed and contributing to it, rather than stopping it.

Let’s start off with the imagery in this song, because it’s simply amazing. Line by line.

From a black widow’s reckoning
Your fortuitous spine
Opened up like a marionette
Danced a whimsical pride

Female black widows are believed to kill and eat their mates after mating, although this behavior is uncommon (but not unheard of). In these lines, the speaker paints the listener as the victim of this process, their spine opening up and moving against their will. “Danced a whimsical pride” is probably the least clear line here, but suggests that the listener’s spine was forced to move and dance for no reason other than the predator’s whims. The motif of anatomy (present in many Purity Ring songs) and the idea of violation both make their first appearance here.

Lend a hand to the silver blade
Stir your gut ’til it pours

This line is a really cool way to suggest the listener being stabbed, and is evocative of both violence and exploitation.

Fill our cups with profanity
‘Til the earth is stained orange

“Profanity” here can represent blood (from the stabbed listener’s gut, perhaps), stolen natural resources, or simply exploitation physically embodied. The “we” here represents humanity as a whole and their hedonism and carelessness as they stain the earth with their excesses.

How my tongue dried into the dust
How my skin willed a lie
Drill a hole in the field
Just the size of my thighs

The first line in this stanza/pre-chorus suggests the slow eradication of moisture and life on Earth that is taking place. “How my skin willed a lie” perhaps represents the denial the speaker uses to ignore the pain their species are causing. “Drill a hole in the field” suggests mining and drilling, ways of robbing the planet of its resources and life. “Just the size of my thighs” recontextualizes that line, however, wrapping it in the anatomical lyrics Purity Ring is so fond of. Is the earth meant to be personified here, or is something else going on?

Feel as lonely as I do
Feel as lonely as I do
Feel as lonely as I do, as I do
Feel as lonely as I do, I do

“Asido” is the name of the song, and I’m not sure whether to pronounce it “As-ee-dough” or “As-I-do”. Nonetheless, the chorus indicates that the speaker isn’t really happy with the current state of affairs, but rather than trying to fix it, they’re taking their loneliness out on the listener, which would explain the black widow symbolism and probable stabbing.

Dried up seeds neath our parting seas
Floating pears on the tide

The Biblical imagery here is clear; the Red Sea parting before Moses is one of the most famous images in the Torah. However, the lines here recontextualize that classic image by showing the remnants of nature eaten away by humans as they fight among themselves and struggle for more resources.

Slow motion to drown me
Roaming streams from our eyes

The speaker is slowly drowning in this desolate world, but will continue to participate in it while they live. “Roaming streams from our eyes” is an interesting way of phrasing tears, and it shows that humanity is not any happier for what they have accomplished.

(skip pre/chorus #2)
Hold the pain in a soft crux
With our palms facing up
Push it thoroughly through and through
This is ours to drink up
Oh, the madness in weakness
Doubled o’er on the plate
Fill an ocean with weaponry
Hurricanes of our grace

Humanity is drinking pain that they push out of the ground, draining the earth while at the same time worsening their own mental well-being. “Oh, the madness in weakness” suggests that humans abhor weakness and will go to dangerous, even insane lengths to avoid it, including “Fill an ocean with weaponry,” which obviously indicates humanity’s violence and artifice to fuel that violence overtaking nature. “Hurricanes of our grace” is an incredibly ironic line — grace is usually associated with divinity and peace, but humanity’s grace is a hurricane tearing away everything in its path (which ties back into the Biblical imagery; perhaps humanity’s gods are just as brutal as we are, or perhaps our belief in religion, philosophy, or any of those creeds merely worsens our brutality).

Feel as lonely as I do, as I do
Feel as lonely as I do, I do
Feel as lonely as I do

Hospice and Beloved

When I was thinking of songs that might possibly fit into a Beloved playlist, my mind immediately jumped to Hospice, a concept album by the indie rock band The Antlers. Hospice is an album where every song is about a hospice worker’s romance and deteriorating relationship with a patient, Sylvia, after her diagnosis with terminal cancer. The album’s story is fictional, but some details are so vivid that they appear autobiographical, and frontman Peter Silberman has refused to confirm exactly how autobiographical it is. It’s chock full of both beauty and brutality, and for that reason, I knew I had to analyze a song from it. That song is “Two”.

“Two”, subtitle: “(I Would Have Saved Her If I Could)”, is a story of death, emotional abuse, and refusing to let go. Not every single lyric is an exact parallel to Beloved, but enough matches that it’s worth going over the lyrics. I strongly recommend you listen to it first, though. With that said…

In the middle of the night I was sleeping sitting up

When a doctor came to tell me, “Enough is enough.”

The speaker here has a lot of parallels to Sethe (as well as Silberman), so that’s who I’ll “attribute” that line to, so to speak. Sethe has trouble sleeping with all of her past constantly at the forefront of her mind. The doctor here can represent Paul D, who comes to Sethe’s house and tells her that this situation has gotten out of hand.

He brought me out into the hall, I could have sworn it was haunted

The house is haunted with Beloved’s ghost. Pretty self-explanatory.

And told me something that I didn’t know that I wanted

To hear that there was nothing that I could do to save you

The choir’s gonna sing, and this thing is gonna kill you

Sethe is hanging on to her memory of Beloved and the rest of her past, convinced that it was her fault and that she has to make it right. But she can’t. The “you” here is referring to Beloved herself in our little world of comparison.

Something in my throat made my next words shake

Sethe is shaken and unsteady about her past, unwilling to share all of the details.

And something in the wires made the light-bulbs break

The ghost is still causing havoc throughout the house during the early part of the novel.

There was glass inside my feet and raining down from the ceiling

It opened up the scars that had just finished healing

Sethe has scars all over her body, especially on her back and feet. The arrival of Paul D and Beloved’s resurgence reopen those old scars, forcing her to face the painful events that created them.

It tore apart the canyon running down your femur

I thought that it was beautiful, it made me a believer

This line is harder to link to the book, but like Sylvia, Beloved also has a characteristic scar — one running across her neck. Whether Sethe thinks that scar is beautiful is up for interpretation.

And as it opened I could hear you howling from your room

Beloved as a ghost is angry and in pain, just like Sylvia is from her treatment.

But I hid out in the hall until the hurricane blew

Sethe mostly avoids or ignores the ghost, while Paul D (the “doctor”) takes a more active role in dealing with it.

When I reappeared and tried to give you something for the pain

You came to hating me again and just sang your refrain:

Sethe wants to resolve the guilt she has for what she did to Beloved, but nothing works. Beloved wants love, but she also wants vengeance, and nothing Sethe does ever satisfies her.

At this point in the song, the quiet singing and guitar strumming pick up with the introduction of drums and a piano. The song reaches its full volume and the beat picks up. This shift could be interpreted as the shift from the early segment of the book to its main events, which begin when Beloved climbs out of the river in human form.

[Chorus]

You had a new dream, it was more like a nightmare

You were just a little kid and they cut your hair

Then they stuck you in machines, you came so close to dying

They should have listened, they thought that you were lying

In the actual song, this section of lines is about chemotherapy (and I love the way it’s expressed), but it can also represent Beloved’s pain at the hands of the “men without skin”.

Your daddy was an asshole and he fucked you up

Built the gears in your head, now he greases them up

Halle was not an asshole, as far as we know, but considering that we’re interpreting the lines from Sethe’s point of view, this represents the guilt Sethe feels for what she did to Beloved and how Beloved resents her for it (although Sethe doesn’t exactly regret what she did… her situation’s complicated).

And no one paid attention when you just stopped eating

“Eighty-seven pounds!” and this all bears repeating

This line doesn’t really apply to the book (unless you consider Sethe’s slow deterioration as Beloved eats all the food as representing this line), but… it’s a pretty brutal line. I felt like that was worth pointing out. Onward to the second verse.

Tell me when you think that we became so unhappy

Self-explanatory.

Wearing silver rings with nobody clapping

Nobody gets married in Beloved (well, aside from flashbacks), but the silver rings could also represent Sethe’s earrings, or the lack of a formal wedding for Sethe and Halle.

When we moved here together we were so disappointed

Sleeping out of tune with our dreams disjointed

Sethe’s life in 124 has never been easy, and her family was only happy for less than a month before all hell broke loose. Their house is a disjointed and broken one.

It killed me to see you getting always rejected

This line applies to Denver more than Beloved: Sethe watches from the sidelines while Denver runs away from school because the children question her about her mother.

But I didn’t mind the things you threw, the phones I deflected

As a ghost and a human, Beloved is violent, but Sethe doesn’t mind. She’s just content to have her daughter there.

I didn’t mind you blaming me for your mistakes

Self-explanatory.

I just held you in the door-frame through all of the earthquakes

Sethe just hangs onto Beloved regardless of the horrible things that happen.

But you packed up your clothes in that bag every night

I would try to grab your ankles, what a pitiful sight

But after over a year, I stopped trying to stop you from stomping out that door

Coming back like you always do

I don’t really know how to apply this to Beloved, necessarily.

Well no one’s gonna fix it for us, no one can

You say that, ‘No one’s gonna listen, and no one understands.’

Sethe and Beloved both refuse to engage the community, and even the rest of their family, when dealing with their issues.

No there’s no open doors and there’s no way to get through

There’s no other witnesses, just us two

Title drop, and an emphasis on Sethe and Beloved’s isolation, even as others try to reach out to them.

There’s two people living in one small room

At one point in the book, Sethe and Beloved are effectively living by themselves in the house.

From your two half-families tearing at you

Denver and Paul D, perhaps? If we consider the size of a family as “two”, then each person is indeed a half-family.

Two ways to tell the story, no one worries

There are two sides to every story, and storytelling is a major theme in Beloved.

Two silver rings on our fingers in a hurry

Return of the rings motif.

Two people talking inside your brain

Beloved seems, at some points, like she’s two different people — one desperate for love, one bent on vengeance. She’s also torn between two modes of existence, physically and mentally.

Two people believing that I’m the one to blame

Both Sethe and Beloved blame Sethe for her actions. Similarly to the narrator of “Two” and Sylvia, unfortunate circumstances lead to an abusive relationship.

Two different voices coming out of your mouth

While I’m too cold to care and too sick to shout

As Beloved gradually subsumes Sethe’s energy, she grows more apathetic and weak.

[Chorus]

Yeah. Beloved is about an unfortunate victim who drags someone else into an abusive relationship. So is “Two”. Go listen to Hospice; it’s very good. Thanks for reading.

“Exit West”: Why Perfect Relationships Don’t Exist

Spoilers for the ending of the novel, by the way.

“Exit West” is a romance novel. It’s many more things, of course: an analysis of the migrant experience; an examination of religion, culture, and skin color’s various roles in society; et cetera. But at the core of the book is Nadia and Saeed’s relationship, and for this, it’s a romance novel.

The ending of the book might lead a reader to think otherwise. After all, Nadia and Saeed split up! They don’t talk to each other anymore! What kind of romance novel is this? Where’s our happily ever after?

I would argue that “Exit West” is a more accurate and mature romance novel than most works of fiction we consume in our day-to-day lives. Most relationships don’t last for a lifetime. We romanticize and glorify the lucky ones that do as some sort of perfect “true love” that everyone should try to achieve in their life, and that can lead to people sticking to relationships that aren’t working or feeling inferior because they didn’t find what society says they should be searching for.

“Exit West” doesn’t do that. Nadia and Saeed make each other happy for a while, but the events of the book change them both, and they go through some rough patches. They realize things aren’t working, and rather than lashing out or clinging to an unwilling partner, they mutually agree to end it.

We’re led to believe from the very beginning of the book that Nadia and Saeed are “meant for each other.” Their meeting is the first major event in the book. Saeed’s father tells Nadia to stick with Saeed and make sure he stays safe (although he, too, recognizes that she might want to leave when he gives her an out). Both are quite likeable characters, and more than anything, we want them to stay together because we’re rooting for their relationship.

But it’s okay to let go. Nadia and Saeed recognize that at some point. A relationship’s success isn’t measured by how long it lasted, but by whether it was healthy and improved each party’s life, and by that metric, Nadia and Saeed knocked it out of the park. It’s about the journey, not the destination.

We shouldn’t measure success by someone’s connection with others and how long it lasted, but whether they were able to better themselves by forming those connections. “Exit West” does just that.

Existentialism and Determinism: Why Free Will is an Illusion, Too (and Why It Still Matters)

During class for the last few days, we’ve analyzed existentialism, a theory that purports that every concept humans use to justify “meaning” in their lives is actually a social construct — an illusion that is more likely to make us unhappy in the long run when it cracks apart. Rather, the only thing that can give meaning to life is life itself and the choices we make while living it.

I’d like to talk about another philosophical argument, determinism. While existentialism says that the freedom to make your own life is the most important thing you can possess, determinism argues that the idea of freedom or choice on a cosmic level is absurd. To be clear, I’m specifically speaking about secular determinism, not predestination: not the idea that a god or some other being wrote our fates for us, but that events are set in stone simply because of everything that has happened before.

The universe is made up of fundamental particles that act in mostly predictable interactions with each other based on mathematical principles. We humans, as well as everything else in the universe, are made up of these particles and act accordingly. Everything we do can be reduced to a set of interactions between the quarks and electrons that form our atoms that form our molecules that produce our chemical compounds that bond to each other in set ways. We don’t understand those interactions fully, but if someone magically knew the location and properties of every particle in the universe, it only stands to reason that they would be able to predict every interaction they would have, and thus every single event in the future.

Every action we take is guided by neurons in our brain attempting to make the optimal decision to perpetuate itself based on evolved tendencies and patterns memorized from our lives, and those cells exist because macromolecules tend to organize into cells, which is simply because cells are better at preserving themselves, which means they survive more often to pass on their behavior. Those molecules are combinations of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, et cetera bonding in predictable manners, which act that way because of their mathematical properties in certain fields that emerged at the universe’s creation.

Does this mean we don’t have free will? Well, it depends on what you define that as. Yes, we are essentially predictable beings. Yes, our actions are founded on small-scale interactions that we have no knowledge of or control over. In that sense, you are not in control of your own life, nor could you ever be.

On the other hand, secular determinism (or determinist existentialism) is one of the profoundest affirmations of free will — even if it’s “fake”. So what if your decisions are based on mathematical principles beyond any of our full understanding? They’re still your decisions. That collection of protons, neutrons, and electrons is you, and no one else. Take ownership of that existence and use it to chase your dreams. After all, those dreams are part of you, too — physically.

In this way, determinism isn’t so different from existentialism. The world’s events are already determined, but they’re also fundamentally absurd. It’s important not to confuse inevitability with meaning. None of these interactions inherently mean anything — which is important, because it means it isn’t someone writing your story for you. It’s just you.

Every decision is fundamentally predictable, but that doesn’t mean you didn’t make it. You were always going to act a certain way, but you were only ever going to act that way because of what makes you you. If someone else were inserted into the picture, they would act completely differently, because they’re not made of the same assemblage of matter that you are. (And how would they get inserted, anyway? You were always destined to be there.)

Your existence is unique. It’s a predefined moment in time and space that belongs to you and nobody else. So make it count.

Bloodchild and Moral Relativism

“Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler starts out as a very… usual work of science fiction. When I first started reading this story, I couldn’t help but feel that I’d seen this all before. An alien race enslaves humanity (or rarely, vice versa) and indoctrinates them into accepting their subservient role in society, but one day, some brave, righteous humans find out the truth and begin to strike against their masters in the name of rebellion. The body horror aspects of Tlic reproduction help reinforce the unease they create.

However, that idea is purposeful misdirection. “Bloodchild” isn’t about slavery, brainwashing, or aliens versus humans. It’s a complicated tale of Terrans and Tlic both trying their best to maintain their people and freedom in an uneasy and uncomfortable arrangement for both parties. It’s that complexity that makes “Bloodchild” so interesting.

As an outside reader, it’s easy to bring our own morals and norms into a story without realizing it. The reader is tempted to assume that Terrans are forced into a horrible relationship where they have to give horrifying birth to aliens against their will just to advance the Tlic’s society. It’s important to remember, however, that the Tlic race was dying out before the start of the story. T’Gatoi informs Gan that the host animals the Tlic used to use for implantation had been killing most of their young for generations. Humanity represents the Tlic’s only hope for survival.

Additionally, the humans in the story were not captured as breeding slaves. According to the story, they first came to the Tlic’s world as refugees, escaping oppression and violence in their own society on Earth or elsewhere. While the Tlic did treat the humans badly initially, putting them in pens like animals, the story also indicates that the humans did much the same, treating the Tlic like overgrown worms to be detested. T’Gatoi was one of the first Tlic to advocate for the (limited) rights of Terrans, and although that issue is still not perfect, the arrangement the Terrans have is clearly superior to the one they had beforehand.

Finally, it’s important to remember that the mindset and morals of the Tlic are not exactly the same as ours. T’Gatoi sees nothing inherently wrong with implantation because it’s normal in Tlic culture. Likewise, pregnancy is perfectly normal in our culture, despite it being incredibly painful, and before the 20th century, often lethal. Consuming infertile eggs to lengthen one’s lifespan is also normal for the Tlic, even if it might seem artificial or dubious to humans. Mutual recognition is a key idea here — recognizing each other as subjects, not objects. Recognizing that morals and cultural traditions, while often similar, are not universal, is important to understanding the mindsets of other people.

Indeed, that is what the Tlic are — people. The story refers to them as such. Even though they might look like gross, giant centipede-things with the gift of speech and technology, they are still individuals with their own desires, fears, and personalities. On the third page of the story, Gan’s mother implies in a flashback that T’Gatoi herself was somewhat ostracized among her own people for some time. These are living, breathing people with their own society, and we should not reject it just because it isn’t “human”. Love can take many forms, and whether it’s familiar or not, unless it’s actively hurting someone against their will, we should accept it.