According to Xiu Xiu frontman, Jamie Stewart, “the title came from a night a literally being on my knees and speaking these words in a prayer to God. It is about the tension between feeling hopeless but also feeling as if spiritual love is possible and there for you if you want it”. Maybe it is a sentiment limited to artistic temperaments, but those are words I’ve uttered on multiple occasions (and with increasing frequency since I realized I will never be good enough). I cannot fault any artist willing to confront the issue with brutal honesty and without pretense (I’m talking to you, Emo-land).
The video is simple: a close up of new band member Angela Seo occupying two-thirds of the shot with half of Jamie visible in the remaining portion of the screen. For the extent of the video (which I pray, for Angela’s sake, was done in one take), Jamie, dancing to the song, tucks into a chocolate bar while to his right, in full view of the camera, Angela causes herself to vomit. The entire scene is depicted with unrelenting realism, because it is real. In a post on the band’s website, Angela elaborates: “yes, me vomiting my brains out on video was gross as hell and it made me feel like shit afterward. Those tears and the ‘what the fuck is going on’ look is sincere”.
Reactions to the video, however, have been anything but understanding. Yes, some viewers recognized the video for what it is, a visual depiction of the song lyrics. Others, however, were quick to label it exploitative, an aberrant “hazing” ritual aimed at the new girl, an act of torture perpetrated in the name of art. I have been surprised to read accusations of racism, sexism, perversity, etc. leveled against Jamie, the band and their fans as a result of this video.
True, it is most definitely difficult to watch, but that is precisely the intent. In her defense of the video on xiuxiu.org, Angela writes, “the video was my idea. Jamie didn’t exploit me or coerce me or anything like that”. And later, “…I grew up around a lot of people who were bulimic…perhaps because bulimia was the most visible, prevalent, and even normalized form of self-destruction at a very impressionable age, I will always think of it as a major form of self-hatred”. In trying to come to terms with the public reaction to the clip, she reasons, “perhaps some people don’t understand that one can voluntarily choose to hurt themselves physically. Maybe some think it’s just so stupid and dumb that one had to have been forced to do it?” But I think there may be something else at work here, something more powerful, more intimidating than misunderstanding—empathy.
Often, we think of it as a positive trait, useful, perhaps, in comforting a friend who has lost a job or is going through a bad breakup. But empathy can be a traumatic experience. It’s that moment in Lolita when Humbert Humbert starts making sense or the Werther Fever that swept Europe in the nineteenth century. I can still remember the shock I experienced whilst reading The Bell Jar (during the fig tree scene) the moment I realized the book could very easily be about me. We don’t like to be reminded of our dark times, the moments we turn our faces from Heaven and think, dear God, I hate myself. The lashing out against the factors which bring those low points to bear upon our consciousness must, on some level it seems, be a simple act of self preservation.
I encourage you to read the rest of Angela’s post here, if you haven’t already. And watch the video if you haven’t already grown weary of my rambling.
The album, Dear God, I Hate Myself (Kill Rock Stars) is available on iTunes as of today with the physical release set for 23 February.