Lorde, Yiyun Li & the Gender of Melodrama
Melodrama’s been on my mind lately and I haven’t been the only one.
Yiyun Li‘s stellar collection of essays explore melodrama’s inherent connection to being human; David Foster Wallace’s interview on irony‘s disservice to culture continues to register; and the most obvious sign may be that Lorde (Ella Yelich-O’Connor) dropped an album last week called Melodrama.
What do we mean by melodrama?
Nowadays, I think of melodrama as the putting on of emotions. It’s Ramona Singer from The Real Housewives of New York:
Melodrama is upping your (perhaps artificial) emotion to manipulate. Whether to gain sympathy or trick someone into not dumping you, melodrama in this sense is selfish, manipulative, and ugly.
But there’s more to melodrama than fake emotions and wails. What looks like melodrama can be genuine feeling. Yet when cast as melodrama that feeling will always evoke some revulsion. As Yiyun Li writes
“Melodrama puts us on guard. We are the uneasy enemies of our own melodramas as much as other people’s” (56)
and as Lorde sings in Liability.
So they pull back, make other plans/ I understand, I’m a liability.
Even with real, overwhelming emotions, if we want to be a little likable then we’re going to keep some important emotions to ourselves. Yet…
I see more and more artists working against the internalized censorship of emotions. They’re interested in the prohibition on melodrama, the thrumming line of self-control that keeps surging emotions from appearing in inchoate, jagged, lacerating form. They approach this cap on implosion/explosion with control and clear-sightedness (artfully, then). Lorde and Li are what happens when grace touches melodrama.
Like hysteric, melodramatic has a gendered valence that has skewed it to be something negative and frequently exhibited by women (as seen by men). Because accusations of melodrama have been used in the past to repress the expression of feminine tendencies, or just plain ole’ emotion, several movements have worked against the tide, to look at intense, isolated emotions (seemingly the melodramatic) and accepting them, understanding them instead of judging them. In the last couple decades, thanks to queer theory, feminism, and the angels of our better nature, artists have been subtly praising the representation of melodrama as well as its existence in our daily lives.
In her essay “Memory Is a Melodrama From Which No One Is Exempt,” Li argues melodrama is inherently human because it’s through melodrama that memories are formed. Memories are cut, splattered, inflated and pressed to oblivion, each gesture directed by the strength of the emotion. (This is why we have flashbulb memories but recall none of the geometric theorems we learned by rote). This may be reductive, but one of Li’s aims here is to defend melodrama, to herself as much as to the reader.
Lorde’s album is a similar defense of high-voltage emotional expression. Lorde is especially curious about the performance of nonchalance in the midst of interior angst. In her interview with The Spinoff Lorde says the entire point of the record is encapsulated in the second track, Sober:
Both works are keenly aware (and fearful) of divisions within themselves, inevitable growth and mortality, and the eclipsed ability to continue a communion with who they once were.
Li frequently asks whether and how one can ever connect to the past or present self. Her fear is isolation, division from the self, and her essays are a steely attempt to hold herself together (through silence, a new language, writing).
This dream isn’t feeling sweet
We’re reeling through the midnight streets
And I’ve never felt more alone
It feels so scary, getting old
Melodrama is an isolating fact of existence. The person who experiences it knows it’s real, but it’s hard for the audience to accept its genuineness. Sometimes this genuine emotion is sincere, as in Li and Lorde, but sometimes it’s insincere, the Real Housewives franchise being a nice example. Perhaps what distinguishes the two is when the person has internalized this evaluation of real v. bullshit emotions. Li and Lorde have the self-awareness to question their melodramas, and in their stately wondering they’re able to create art. The questioning, as Li notes repeatedly, doesn’t recuse one from the pain of melodrama, but it does help create something that buoys others rather than drags them down.
Though it’s obvious she would be, I was surprised when Stereogum described Lorde as an “enduring and refreshing public figure.”
When art is culled from melodrama, the culler seems to be someone who is taciturn. In their silence they gain, even to those who know them, a public figure status. It’s an inviolable silence that’s necessary to the artist. It’s also a melodramatic stance.
Li: “Tragedy and comedy involve and audience, so they must give — sharing themselves to elicit tears and laughter. Melodrama is not such a strategist. It meets no one’s expectations but its internal need to feel.”
Lorde seems to have mastered this stance: in an unwillingness to follow trends, or displaying a need for an audience. Watching her well-known dance moves on stage, I get the sense that she’d be dancing the same whether thousands or no one was watching.
That’s the joy of alternative spaces of communication. It’s captured in the Katherine Mansfield quote that Yiyun Li uses as the title of her essay collection, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. A different, perhaps greater intimacy is possible between two people when they don’t look at each other. When they connect through music or literature (or in Marina Abramovic’s case, from looking at each other silently across a table). It’s a delicate, precious bond that can be broken if spoken to directly. Meeting a creator you admire can erupt the intimacy you experience within their work. Even Patti Smith in M Train admits to being fearful of meeting her hero in Tokyo, Haruki Murakami.
It’s cool to note that those who take on the biological necessity and social inevitableness of melodrama are the least likely to be, artistically, melodramatic.
The charge of melodrama is so often pointed at women: histrionic, hysterical, splenic, nasty women. Lorde and Yi work within and against those limits. It’s interesting to watch when melodrama doesn’t follow the gender fault lines we’ve been encouraged to follow.
One of the best examples of melodrama in the art world I’ve come across recently is Santiago Sierra‘s 10 People Paid to Masturbate. His work has a morsel of insight, but in this piece (written Maggie Nelson‘s essay “Nobody Said No“) Sierra manufactures the conditions that will make him weep. Made in 2000, the video shows ten poor men in Cuba masturbating on camera for twenty dollars. In an interview with the BBC, Sierra reported that “Nobody said no and for me that was very tough. When I made this piece I would go to be crying.” Nelson then eviserates this melodrama with the following:
“It’s one thing to set up situations that aim to alert the world–even if just the art world–to the bad news of radical exploitation, even if one feels the lamentable need to exploit others to make one’s point. It’s quite another to decide in advance on the terms of human dignity (i.e., that a willingness to film oneself jerking off for money signifies that you have none), set up situations which prove (to you) that someone is utterly debased, then weep over the fulfillment of your puritanical prognostication.”
That’s the melodrama we should fight against, as people who value integrity, honest emotion, sincere connection, we fight against preconceived notions and predetermined experiments. The melodrama that is rightfully questioned is that kind that sets out to control another’s feelings.
Sierra is a great contrast to Li and Lorde in that he is totally opposite of their perpetually open, free and freeing art. He aims to bind others to his ideas. They aim to liberate themselves, others can come and go as they please.
Final thought on gender and melodrama: