This post is by Myra Bloom.
There seem to be two main ways of dealing with the end of the world as we knew it: some people are conjuring an illusion of normalcy. They’re leaning extra hard into schedules and routines, maybe even cultivating new ones – working remotely, palpating sourdough, dialing into digital yoga classes, closely observing the behaviour of birds. Others are of the “chuck it in the fuck it bucket” school, to borrow a phrase from my friend Kristina. We might call this the ‘quarantinis-and-Tiger-King’ approach. A quick Google will furnish guides for maximal productivity(King Lear, they admonish you, was written under quarantine) or non-productivity(your desire to write King Lear, they admonish you, is your internalized domination by capitalism).
Until recently, I was an adherent, if not a card-carrying member, of team productivity. I was ‘teaching’ remotely (lol). I was pumping out Alison Romandishes, getting my daily unit of state-sanctioned exercise, wearing structured pants. I was, I thought, doing quarantine right. But as the days dragged on, the edges started to fray: a pair of leggings here, an extra handful of snacks there. I stared constantly at my laptop screen, waiting for something other than grim stats to happen, and when it didn’t I turned anxiously to my little screen, hoping something was happening there. I found only my haggard face reflected back at me in a black pool unmarred by notifications of any kind.
I started this essay one early afternoon. I was still wearing rumpled pyjamas, my body unwashed, the dog unwalked. Ordinarily, I would be horrified by the lassitude. I love order, stability, routine. Years of hustling in a precarious job market have honed me into an edgy shark, swimming for my life. There’s always something to chase in academia, where the resources are lean and mean. I sometimes personify academia as my bad boyfriend: he barely pays attention to me and doesn’t really seem to care how I’m doing, but when he smiles at me it’s like sunshine. And at first, I have to admit that I was pretty happy we were self-isolating together. When people would ask if I was “lonely” living “all by myself” (ugh, and plus, give the dog her due), I’d reassure them that, au contraire, I was keeping very busy. Maybe I didn’t specify exactly how much time I was spending with Boris, my sexy manuscript.
Lately, though, I’ve gotten a little sick of Boris. To be frank, I’d rather just eat chips. So, in the words of Fiona Apple, “fetch the bolt cutters!” By which I mean, blithely discard that which worketh not for thee.
I had a prof in grad school who once said to me, koanically, “Sometimes saying no, Myra… is saying yes… to the self.” I’ve been trying to channel that energy a lot this past year, my first in a tenure-track job. A joiner by nature, I felt flattered and gratified by all the opportunities that came my way, until I started to feel crushed under their weight. Now, I’m finding new power in a kindly but firmly stated ‘no’. Never has this advice felt more timely. Civil society is crumbling into the very earth, and yet my inbox is replete with dispatches from the university encouraging me to improve my digital pedagogy. My students are literally fleeing to their home countries, cowering terrified in crappy apartments, freaking out about their parents working on the front lines, and I’m supposed to get them excited to do an online poll? I would prefer not to.
You know who else would prefer not to? Fiona-effing-Apple, who has officially unseated Alison Roman as my quarantine guru. Step aside, rustic salad! It’s time to RAGE. For those of you who haven’t been playing her new album on repeat, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a big FU to the micro and macroaggressions women face in a patriarchal, conformist society. Apple directs her righteous fury at the bullies, rapists, and other general assholes who have tried to hold women back over the years. Enough playing nice. The time has come to “Blast the music! Bang it, bite it bruise it!”
Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a work of genius, but what makes it“the unofficial album of the pandemic”is its purposeful imperfection. Apple recorded it at home in Venice Beach, and you can hear her dogs, some weird sounds that might be coming from outside, and even her own mistakes: on the final track, she drops a line, swears, waits a few bars, then picks the song right back up. It’s the perfect musical accompaniment to these days of awkward Zooming, where the angles are unflattering and the dog farts audibly in the middle of the meeting (true story). This homespun humbleness could not be any farther from Drake’s “Toosie Slide,” also released this month, whose autotuned braggadocio put me in a funk that took several days to shake. While Drake’s gilded palace (watch the video) is a monument to capitalism’s monstrous logic, Fetch the Bolt Cutters gives us the tools to dismantle the master’s house. It reminds us, by way of contrast, that every shimmering surface is an illusion built on the backs of unsung labourers hauling a lot of garbage. I happen to know this firsthand: I used to drive by Drake’s McMansion-in-progress on my way home from work.
Remember that video from the Before Times of Prof. Robert Kelley’s children storming into his BBC interview, chased by their frantic mother? Besides the children’s impeccable timing, the punctum of that video was the domestic intrusion. The invisible labour of Prof. Kelley’s wife, Jung-a Kim, was suddenly visible, as she struggled to keep her family out of her husband’s frame. These days, we’re seeing a lot of people’s private lives as they broadcast to us from their home offices and bedrooms. It makes people seem a lot more human when we encounter them in the context of their worldly detritus. To me, the visibility of the domestic sphere, and of the invisible work that happens there, is one of the possible silver linings of the pandemic. In late March, the BBC describedthe “unintended consequences” of Malaysia’s decision to permit only the ‘head of the household’ to do the grocery shopping: namely, that men lost their minds in a labyrinth of leafy greens. I like to think that these men will ask themselves what other secret knowledge gardens their wives cultivate.
Another form of invisible labour that is being recognized in this moment is the chronically “underpaid and undervalued” work of women in “essential” sectors, including the service industry and healthcare. The New York Times reports that because women are overrepresented in these sectors, women suddenly outnumber men in the American workforce. As they put it, “the soldier on the front lines of the current national emergency is most likely a woman,” and even likelier a woman of colour. It’s likely too optimistic to say that the situation will change when the dust settles on the economy: structural inequalities stemming from issues like race, class and gender are too deeply rooted. To make a historical comparison, the women who entered the labour force during the First and Second World Wars were largely pushed to its margins when soldiers returned from the front. Nonetheless, their visibility in historically masculine roles gave them a platform from which to advocate for rights and opportunities. It’s in this more modest sense that I’m hopeful that gains might be made in the future.
So I guess what I’m driving at here is that Fiona Apple’s aesthetics of imperfection is also an ethics. In daring to put something imperfect into the world, she reminds us that the slick veneer that coats all our cultural products masks the rot festering just beneath the surface. Like Greta Thunberg, or Tarana Burke, or the Wet’suwet’en land protectors, she invites us to raise a collective middle finger to the status quo, and to build something wilder, fairer, freer.
Fetch the bolt cutters! Turn off the computer! Blast the music! Let’s get to fucking work.
Myra Bloom is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at York University’s Glendon campus. She teaches and studies Canadian literature, confessional writing, feminist aesthetics, and Quebec language/identity politics.