Theory in Unlikely Places: Tim Kinsella’s Lyrics

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In this series with the Bulletin, we ask readers and contributors to share some reflections on unlikely places (i.e., non-stodgy-academic-prose) where religious studies theory and method show up for them–be it in song, poetry, literature, television, film, or anything else. 

by Adam T. Miller

A while back, Russell McCutcheon shared a brief note about a poem titled “Geography” recently published (in a larger collection of poetry) by former Alabama religion major, Madison Langston. The poem is short, but not at all simple. It’s nostalgic and self-aware about the conditions of its nostalgia.

It caused me to think about a place where theory often shows up to me–not academic prose, but music. More specifically: the lyrics of Tim Kinsella, singer and lyricist for Owls and Make Believe, two of my favorite bands. Owls’ first album (s/t) was released fifteen years ago; their second album (Two) was released two years ago, after a long hiatus. Make Believe released three full length albums (Shock of Being, Of Course, and Going to the Bone Church) between 2003 and 2008. (I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they reunite for at least a show, if not another record.) Both groups (and other projects their members are in) have attained a kind of cult status; their records are not often met with much critical acclaim (see, e.g., Pitchfork’s review of Shock of Being).

I’ll here provide the lyrics of three songs in full–two from Owls’ Two, one from Make Believe’s Shock of Being–followed by brief reflections.

A drop of blood in water appears to blossom.
That thing I know that I can’t say is all I want to say.

I’ve never once asked for advice and I’m not starting now.
I’ve offered you ritual. I’ve offered you surprise.
I dropped a thing and then it knocked over another thing.

But I keep a couple wrong things around because I know that I’ll need them for perfect perfection perfect perfection perfect perfection perfect perfection perfect perfection perfect perfection perfect perfection perfect perfection perfect perfection perfect perfection perfect perfection perfect perfection perfect perfection.

A drop of blood in water appears to blossom.

In these lyrics, we are given a glimpse of a conflicted and constrained subject, desiring what it cannot have, doing things it thinks it should do but with unintended results. But the overarching point of the song, or so it seems to me, is what we might call the basic insight of poststructuralism: such things as values comes in pairs. In the absence of imperfection, what could it mean for something to be perfect?

Why oh why must other people’s stuff always seem just kinda dirty? That guy applied that Lost-and-Found Chap Stick. A waiter with bad breath–he dropped your chilled pickle in hot sand.

I want you to do what you want to do. It’s cute how you assume your experience of the world is the world.

My oh my I’d smear your love-muck into my hair and face, sniff my fingers all day. The Stop sign’s white looks green next to fresh snow and I need to eat your goo. My horoscope always trumps world news.

I want you to want what I want you to do. You’re stupid to assume questions assure answers.

Admittedly, I have never read Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger in its entirety. But this song has always reminded me of the portions I read in my first theory course. Bewildering as it was, and so long ago, that connection might not be so strong as I think. But take the first paragraph as an example–the disgust in these scenarios (caused by the mixture of clean and dirty) is palpable.

The third paragraph illustrates the comparative method–which suggests that situating two or more things next to one another can cause new things to come to light about the things being compared (not to mention the people doing the comparison)–albeit in a rather odd way. The first line is a juxtaposition of romantic/erotic sentiment and perhaps a bit off-putting descriptions; the second an observation about how different contexts cause some things to appear other than how we think they are.

I’ve also had the sense several times that the second and fourth little paragraphs are all about ideology and how it causes worlds to appear uncreated and as if they function on their own, how it interpellates subjects in terms appropriate to those worlds, and how it subtly molds those subjects from the outside-in so that the inside-out feels right without any hesitation.

  • “A Band Room of One’s Own” (live video, studio recording)

My Buddy Trouble Anna had a punk band named Bananas / She’s a tornado with teeth and she needs a place to sleep / There’s friendly ghosts below her belt inside her belly when she sings

And Love and War are either / either or or / or And Love and War are either / either or or / or

Under hot lights of open mic night / She’s with Christ against all the stupid Christians / Bananas fell apart and Anna finally got her start / Anna made out like a bandit

And Love and War are either / either or or / or And Love and War are either / either or or/ or

Singing in her own strange laughing language / She’s with Marx against all the stupid Marxists / Singing ‘Babies and Old People Look the Most Like Monkeys’

This song doesn’t give us too much theory to chew on (though there is a lot of odd stuff going on), but what it does offer is interesting. And what I’m referring to, of course, are the lines about Christ and Marx. What we see in action here in both cases is a rhetorical move likely familiar to many readers of the Bulletin: an appeal to origins/founders as a way not only to distinguish oneself from others, but also to privilege one’s own position as authentic over and against said others. What exactly Trouble Anna’s views regarding Christ and Marx are, we can only speculate. But rhetoric like this shows up quite frequently in the kinds of material we are inclined to study, and these two lines illustrate quite nicely/explicitly the kind of work it often seeks to do.

The moral of the story? Well, it’s like McCutcheon said when sharing his thoughts on “Geography” on Facebook–“you don’t have to use prose to do theory.”

Adam T. Miller is a PhD student in History of Religions at the University of Chicago, an online instructor for Central Methodist University, Editorial Assistant for History of Religions, and Associate Editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. Typically operating within socio-rhetorical theoretical frameworks and employing philological, discourse-analytic, and historical methods, he specializes in the history and literature of Mahāyāna Buddhism in India.

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