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Reject the rejection
September 29, 2013Posted by on
“I could be a smack freak
And hate society
I could hate God
And blame Dad
I might be in a Holocaust
Might not have a child
And hate school
I could be a sad lover
And hate death
I could be a neuro
And hate sweat
I hate my way”
[“Hate My Way”, Kristin Hersh, Throwing Muses (1986)]
The singer delivers the lines backed by a very square (‘sewing machine’–like) minor pentatonic figures played on electric guitar and bass, and open fifths punctuated by a single snare drum. In other words, militaristic elements, or maybe a more disciplined version of those Rite Of Spring-style figures originally meant to evoke barbarism (iirc). (Not that the significance of these sounds hasn’t changed since then, but, it’s there, too). The performance is not bluesy, despite the instruments and material. Rather, it is overtly lacking in such features (swing, note bending). It’s not rocking either. There is no groove. In fact, it features silence between repetitions of the backing figure, leaving just the voice. The content of the song‘s lyrics up to this point creates tension with the form: lines about hating various figures of authority, humans’ mortality, and the human rationalization of murder and enslavement (Nazism). Delivered against this militaristic, sort of anti-sensual accompaniment. Playing this kind of thing on rock and roll instruments, etc.
The lyric, accompanied by a punctuating three staccato quarter-notes and silence, declares “No / I hate my way”. The sentence is grammatically ambiguous. Either the way is the object of the speaker’s hate, or else the speaker hates something, in their own idiosyncratic way. The context of the other lines aren’t enough to resolve the ambiguity.
I think the second reading is most relevant within the song. The speaker begins by enumerating kinds of subjects and the objects of their particular hatred. By juxtaposing these lines with the militaristic and simplistic musical accompaniment, the song implies that the speaker rejects or escapes from the fate of adopting one of these subjective options from society’s pre-determined menu. The speaker considers and rejects (negates) different forms of negation of social authorities (god, fathers,fascism, human mortality). More on this later.
The form of the song undergoes a major change at this point, cutting without much transition to a dreamy, but austere figure in 3/4. It revolves around a descending bassline, essentially, though the bass guitar part is melodic within these restrictions. The electric guitar essentially cycles through plagal (churchy) cadences (4-1) throughout this section, mostly arpeggiated over the square, ‘sewing-machine’ eighths we heard in the song’s first part. The most fundamentally changed element of this section, however, is the vocal delivery. Hersh sings this section in a restrained, serious-sounding voice, lacking vibrato and flourish but not defying vocal technique, either. The voice sounds less glib and more sunk in suffering, frankly.The lyrics’ content agrees with that reading: “I can’t rise above the church / Vines tangle my hands [..] A boy was tangled in his bike forever / A girl was missing two fingers”.
The line “I have a gun in my head / I’m invisible” initiates a marked change in Hersh’s vocal delivery. She reserves a furious, growling hollar for certain lines whose content is obscure, maybe purely expressionistic (“I can’t find the ice!”). Meanwhile, the lyrics’ content moves back toward that of the song’s first part, with the phrase “ask myself again / how do they kill children”, which points to the reality of Nazism mentioned earlier. Particularly, it highlights technical concerns over the pathos which this part easily evokes— “how do they” rather than “why do they,” or even “how can they.” Hersh: “And why do I want to die?” Again, the lyrics make suicidal desire a chance for rational reflection, saying “why..” instead of just “I want to die”. The expressive care Hersh uses in her delivery this one line, when she makes her voice tremble, calls attention to the comparative lack of “passionate” or “vulnerable” affect in other parts of the song.
By and large, the song operates by means of a contradiction between its form (musical accompaniment and vocal delivery) and content (the lyrics). In the section with the most austere, mechanized-sounding accompaniment, the lyrics assert the idiosyncracy of the subject, not only against apparent realities, but against various objections to that apparent or actual reality. By omitting mention of the object of their hatred, but emphazing its quality (“hate my way”), the speaker places themself in opposition to thoughts or reactions that threaten to reveal themselves as false, i.e., that depend on illlusions. As emphasized in the obscure or expressive imagery of the song’s second part, the speaker has retreated into the more particular aspects of their own internal experience. Hersh’s intense, furious vocal on some of these lines only raises the persistence of the speaker’s hatred to an exclamation there. Without any determinate content, though, this hatred may eventually be conducive to false consciousness. Move right from the hatred of sweat to the hatred of Hitler, and you raise that possibility at least.
There is no safe or correct resolution of the conflicts the song expresses within the song’s own characteristic domain of experience. You can’t turn off this hatred and march to the beat of the army drummer any more than you can mistake it for critique. Or single-handedly overcome capitalism, the father’s authority, militarism, etc. The song is a scream of pain from inside the barracks of deformed rationality that legitimately still commands us, as rationality.